House committee approves bill loosening child labor standards

Published 2:03 pm Thursday, February 15, 2024

A bill weakening Kentucky’s child labor laws got committee approval Thursday morning.

House Bill 255, sponsored by Rep. Phillip Pratt, R-Georgetown, would remove many current work restrictions for 16 and 17 year olds.

Current Kentucky child labor laws are more restrictive than federal law.

“All this bill does is bring Kentucky in line with federal standards,” Pratt said. “…I would say this is actually building toward the future.”

What does this bill do?

HB255 would repeal Kentucky law limiting the number of hours and days per week this age group can work when school is in and out of session.

Current restrictions allow 16 and 17-year olds to work six hours on school days and eight hours on weekends, as well as 30 hour weeks when school is in session and 40 hour weeks during the summer.

This age group cannot work past 10:30 p.m. on school nights and 1 a.m. on weekends or before 6:30 a.m. preceding a school day.

The Department of Workplace Standards commissioner is responsible for executing these day, hour and age restrictions in order to “properly protect the life, health, safety, or welfare of minors,” according to KRS 339.20, which would be repealed if Pratt’s bill passed.

Pratt’s bill removes much of the commissioner’s discretion.

16 and 17 year olds would have no day or hour restrictions, including work during school hours.

The bill maintains a few pieces of current law, including a list of potentially hazardous occupations minors cannot work in.

These prohibited jobs include manufacturing, mining, wrecking and demolition, working on a roof, working where alcoholic liquors are sold or made, hazardous tasks in the electrical trade and operating a variety of power-driven machines, including forklifts, meat processors, chain saws, balers and compactors.

Under the bill, this age group would be allowed to work in these professions if it’s part of an apprenticeship or student learning program in line with federal child labor regulations.

Essentially, Pratt’s bill would prohibit Kentucky from enacting more restrictive child labor laws than the federal government, created by the U.S. Secretary of Labor under the Fair Labor Standards Act.

Louisville Democrat Al Gentry said that this is a bad precedent to set, considering many federal acts are “produced in somewhat of a general fashion” that considers the constitutional power of states to enact more restrictive rules.

Pratt said that this is one area of more restrictive Kentucky law that he looks at and thinks, “This doesn’t make sense.”

“I think this is good to get people out into the workplace,” he said. “Give them some work experience, and hopefully they’ll get off the couch, quit playing Nintendo games and actually make money.”

‘Being a teenager is already stressful enough’

Jerald Adkins, a legislative agent for Kentucky State AFL-CIO, and Dustin Pugel, policy director at Kentucky Center for Economic Policy, testified against the bill.

Adkins said that in his years of experience at the Kentucky Labor Cabinet, he’s seen the impact of overworked minors who are still enrolled in school.

Although Kentucky faces a worker shortage, and a dismal 57% workforce participation rate, Adkins said he doesn’t think this is the answer.

“An educated and properly trained workforce is the way to go to sustain a workforce in the Commonwealth of Kentucky that will make our neighboring states jealous and thrive to match what Kentucky is doing,” he said.

Pugel added that this could incentivize employers to fill positions with younger employees, who earn lower wages, to help their bottom line. This could lead to depressed wages and fewer job opportunities for adults.

He emphasized that KyPolicy supports the ability of high school students to work, but that this eliminates “already generous guardrails” and threatens the progress Kentucky has made in graduation rates.

“The question is whether or not this bill threatens the safety of our children or threatens their ability to thrive in high school,” Pugel said.

“…The existing child labor standards are evidence based. It’s hard to see how allowing additional hours and days of work will not impinge on the success of preparing for post secondary education or vocational pathways to good jobs following high school.”

Adkins said that minors may not know the law or their rights. While employers who hire minors must post a child labor law poster, past interviews with working high schoolers have shown him that they don’t read these posters and aren’t aware of the law unless someone tells them.

He said that longer hours can negatively impact teenagers’ mental and physical health.

“Being a teenager is already stressful enough,” Adkins said. “Having employers pressure kids into working longer hours or working overnight during the school year while they’re also trying to do athletics is really going to be dangerous all around.”

Most committee members voted for the bill, except three Democrats and one Ashland Republican, Rep. Scott Sharp, who passed in the hopes a middle ground can be found.

One of the opposing Democrats, Rep. Adrielle Camuel, D-Lexington, said that kids this age are not fully developed yet or full adults.

“I think (changing restrictions) puts them at risk of encouraging them to drop out of school or putting them at risk of losing any type of academic advantage or athletic advantage that they may have if they want to pursue a college career or any furthering education at all,” she said.