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Nation’s Child Labor Laws Maintain Relevance

Fair Labor Standards Act Youth Provisions

Minimum age for non-agricultural employment is 14. Unless enrolled in an approved Work Experience and Career Exploration Program (WECEP), hours worked by 14- and 15-year-olds are limited to:

  • Non-school hours
  • 3 hours in a school day
  • 18 hours in a school week
  • 8 hours on a non-school day
  • 40 hours on a non-school week
  • Hours between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. (7 a.m. – 9 p.m. June 1 through Labor Day)

The Act also bars hazardous jobs.

It does not limit hours or times of day for workers 16 years and older.

When states have child labor laws that are more stringent than those imposed by the Act, the higher minimum must be followed.

His remark that child labor laws are “truly stupid” may have generated the most press, but Republican presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich is not alone in believing that children should be allowed to work at more jobs and for longer hours at a time.

Alternate description

LIUNA General Secretary-Treasurer and LHSFNA Labor Co-Chairman
Armand E. Sabitoni

Months before Gingrich’s headline-grabbing comment during a speaking engagement at Harvard University, the state of Wisconsin modified its child labor laws, essentially making it possible for employers to treat minors as adults, and Missouri considered but dropped a similar proposal. Maine increased the number of hours 16- and 17-year-olds can work during the school year from 20 to 24 hours a week. Pennsylvania, Ohio and Minnesota are among other states where easing child labor restrictions has been under debate.

“LIUNA has made great strides to educate young men and women about our industries and the world of work. Work ethic and skills training is very important for teenagers,” notes Armand E. Sabitoni,  LIUNA General Secretary-Treasurer and LHSFNA Labor Co-Chairman. “However this cannot come at expense of their safety or their studies. Unions fought long and hard for these laws that protect our children. These proposals are just another ploy to erode workers’ rights.”

The rationales for changing these laws range from bringing state laws in line with federal regulations that are sometimes less restrictive, to enhancing learning among teens of good work habits, to increasing opportunities for teens to earn. In these financially difficult times when many families are struggling, this last argument may be particularly appealing. All are advanced by conservative Republicans clamoring for government downsizing and less regulatory oversight of workplace safety and health.

Construction Rules for Teens

  • Under age 16 : office or sales work only
  • Ages 16 and 17: may work in construction but are prohibited from:
  • Mixing, handling , transporting explosive compounds;
  • Driving motor vehicles or working as outside helpers (17- year- olds may drive on an incidental basis if certain criteria are met);
  • Riding on construction elevators, operating or assisting in the operation of cranes, hoists, forklifts, Bobcat loaders, front-end loaders, backhoes, skid steer loaders;
  • Loading, operating and unloading trash compactors, balers;
  • Operating power-driven woodworking machines, metal forming, punching, shearing machines including portables;
  • Operating power-driven circular saws, band saws, chain saws, reciprocating saws, guillotine shears, wood chippers, abrasive cutting discs including portables;
  • Wrecking, demolition, shipbreaking;
  • Roofing and on or about a roof;
  • Excavation.

For a complete list of hazardous occupations and exceptions for apprentices and bona-fide student-learners, go to or call 1-866-4US-WAGE.

Promoting this perspective, Maine Restaurant Association President Dick Grotton asks, “How come it’s OK, even exemplary, for teenagers to spend 40 hours a week in sports, glee club, chorus, debate society or any other select activity sanctioned by the social elite, but if you are a teenager who wants to work or needs to work, there are limits? Kids working is not a bad thing.”

The changes, however, fly in the face of federal child labor legislation in place since the Great Depression. Included in the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act, these provisions were established to protect children and teens from working long hours on dangerous machinery or in hazardous conditions and to encourage and ensure school attendance and success.

These measures remain relevant today. Without prohibitions in place, teens in need of jobs might feel compelled to work under hazardous circumstances, particularly when times are tough. Yet, in some fields, the nature of work has changed since the 1930s. Today, the nation has a lower percentage of farm and industrial jobs and a greater share of service sector employment.

Despite current work restrictions, America’s youth are hardly strangers to the workforce. In the U.S., approximately 1.9 million adolescents between the ages of 15 and 17 are employed. Working teens are also not strangers to getting hurt. Nearly 70 die in job-related incidents every year, and approximately 146,000 suffer nonfatal injuries and illnesses. Lack of experience and training is often the story behind these tragedies. Reluctance to question authority or to speak up about hazardous situations is also an important factor.

“As labor costs in other countries rise, we should not be looking to our children to fill the Republicans’ insatiable quest for cheap labor,” says Sabitoni. “While reviewing current law may be appropriate, a more sophisticated approach that puts our children’s long term needs first is necessary.  In the long run, our children need laws that protect them from harm and help keep them in schools that provide a rigorous academic education as well as skills training and apprenticeship opportunities.”

[Janet Lubman Rathner]

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