When I was 14 years old, I was consumed with school, my friends, family and boys. Even then I knew I wanted to be a medical doctor. My sister was in law school and the oldest brother in college. Immersed in their lives, they still took the time to come home regularly to connect and catch up. With love and guidance, we all grew into the adults we are today.
I can still remember vividly:
Getting teased my brothers.
Arguing with my parents over a rule I was sure wasn’t needed for such a mature young girl.
Sitting through endless days at school and then doing homework in preparation for the next one.
Playing and socializing with friends.
Giggling about boys.
Sharing meals with my family.
Reading, writing and dreaming of what life would be like when I was in charge of my life.
It wasn’t spent in a bar, waiting on tables.
On an assembly line.
There were laws protecting and guarding against the abuse anyone, including my parents, may want to inflict by forcing me into a job I wasn’t physically or emotionally prepared to do.
I was exactly where I belonged. In school, at home, with friends, learning to become a productive, honorable, healthy adult.
When I was 14 and 15 I occasionally worked in my father’s land investment firm after school, answering phones and copying papers. I felt important and close to my father.
At 16 I was a college freshman, but I was still required, as had my siblings before me, to work a few hours a week outside the home. It was meant to teach me responsibility and the value of money. The first paycheck I received as a cashier at a shoe store was empowering. It taught me commitment, follow-through and how to interact with people in a customer service-based setting. It also reinforced how hard my parents worked to support their family.
Now some legislatures across this country want to change the future many children will face by changing long fought for child labor laws that protect children from working long hours in unsafe settings.
Child labor laws-the fair labor standards act (FLSA)- were first enacted in 1938 to prohibit employing children in jobs detrimental to their health and safety. It restricted the hours those under 16 could work and listed hazardous occupations too dangerous for them to perform.
They protected the most precious and vulnerable among us from being exploited.
But following COVID, with its horrendous loss of lives, persistent illness, massive numbers choosing to retire, as well as more restrictive immigration laws, the current job market is the tightest it’s been since WWII-with the lowest unemployment rate; 3.2%, in 54 years. As a result, lawmakers in at least 10 stares are looking to fill those vacancies with children.
Ohio has a bill on track to becoming law that will allow 14- and 15-year-olds to work until 9 PM (7 PM is the Federal limit) so a companion bill is asking Congress to amend the 1938 law.
Wisconsin legislators are backing a bill to allow 14 and 15 to serve alcohol in bars and restaurants.
In March of this year, Arkansas Governor Sara Huckabee signed a law that eliminated necessary permits requiring employers to verify age and parental consent to work. This allows companies deniability when underage workers are exposed.
In Iowa, Governor Reynolds’s signed a law allowing 16- and 17-year-olds to work unsupervised in childcare settings, serve in bars and expanded hours they can be employed. Republicans dropped a version allowing children to work in dangerous fields like mining, logging and meat packing but kept ones that allow them to work in meat coolers as well as expanding hours in industrial laundries and assembly lines.
New Hampshirite extended the hours teens can work and allow 14-year-olds to bus tables where alcohol is served.
New Jersey also expanded teen work hour limits.
More bills are being advanced in Georgia, Missouri and Nebraska.
And under the Child Labor Act, minimum wage for those under the age of 20 is not the same as for those over the age of 20. In fact, it was last amended in 1996 to be $4.25 for the first 90 consecutive days employed.
These are just a few examples of the changes occurring across this nation in order to rectify the labor shortage.
We all know it won’t be the offspring of the wealthy risking their lives or impacting their education. It will be the most vulnerable just trying to survive. That’s who government was always meant to protect. Those who don’t have the power, the money or the voice to stop injustices.
Especially when there are so many more appropriate remedies-
Incentivizing older adults to stay in the work force longer. Expanding opportunities for those who served their prison terms. Making childcare available for all in need so parents can return to the job force. Encouraging and expanding immigration laws.
These are the years children should be learning, growing and experiencing life within safe, supervised parameters. Not sweating it out in unsafe places that pay slave wages.
Is this really where we want to find our next group of workers? If their safety isn’t reason enough then what should be is realizing how short-sighted goals like filling openings now, at the expense of our youth’s education and the long-term positive economic impact that brings.
Education enables us to break the cycle of poverty, increases our ability to compete on the world stage, improves critical thinking and provides benefits to the individual, as well as their families and communities.
Staying in school used to be the focus.
Now, ending childhood dreams and aspirations in order to fill job vacancies seems to be the goal.
We are better than that.