Articles dealing with child labor often involve minors working in sweatshop-type conditions outside of the United States. The conditions outlined in such articles are usually horrid — and rightfully condemned. In contrast, employers in the U.S. probably give little thought to federal and state child labor laws, viewing the laws and compliance obligations as well-established.

Quietly, though, child labor laws in various U.S. states are changing. Particularly with lingering labor shortages and the approach of seasonal hiring for the summer, employers must be aware of these changes, which are primarily occurring at the state level.

According to a February 2024 article from Working Economics Blog, "child labor remains a top issue in 2024 state legislative sessions amid soaring violations and widespread abuse of child labor laws in multiple sectors of the economy."

The state-level response has varied. Some states have strengthened protections, while other states have weakened child labor laws (mainly by allowing minors to work longer hours). Twenty-eight states have considered bills on this topic since 2021, with a near-equal mix of "strengthening" or "weakening" child labor protections.

Florida is a case in point of new laws allowing minors to work more hours. In its 2024 session, the Florida Legislature passed (and Governor DeSantis signed) House Bill 49, which takes effect on July 1, 2024. In addition to the actual changes in the law (which generally allow 16- and 17-year-old children to work more hours and expands the ability to work on school nights), the policy consideration behind the changes as well as the expected economic impact are notable. The House of Representatives Staff Final Bill Analysis identified the "direct economic impact on private sector" as follows:

  • The bill may increase opportunities for 16- and 17-year-old individuals to work and generate income.
  • The bill may allow certain employers to employ 16- and 17-year-old individuals without having to comply with the burdensome requirements in the current law.
  • The bill may increase labor force participation among 16- and 17-year-old individuals, which may result in a reduction of obtaining higher skills, education, and healthcare for these individuals.

Depending on the state, considerations like these may cause other jurisdictions to review or change their existing child labor laws.

What should an employer do now to comply with child labor laws?

First, remember that under federal law, the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), which applies throughout the country, establishes a general minimum age of 16 years for employment in nonhazardous occupations as well as a minimum age of 18 years for any employment in any occupation determined by the Secretary of Labor to be hazardous to the health or well-being of minors. The FLSA also specifies particular occupations where minors aged 14 and 15 are permitted to work.

Second, employers should take a current look at all states in which they have operations to ensure they are in compliance with applicable law and determine whether any changes have occurred at the state level. Employers should particularly look for any changes related to the number of hours a minor may work and for required rest and meal break periods within the workday.

While many of the recent changes allow for greater latitude in employing minors, the penalties for non-compliance remain stiff. If you employ or are considering employing minors, it is critical for you to take a close look at the current laws where you operate and to be aware of their possible impact.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.