‘Let our kids be kids:’ Child labor law mirroring less restrictive federal law passes House

Published 5:12 pm Thursday, February 22, 2024

Eighteen Republicans joined House Democrats in opposition to a bill loosening child labor restrictions Thursday, but it wasn’t enough to stop it from passing.

The 60-36 vote came after nearly two hours of debate. Rep. Phillip Pratt, R-Georgetown, said that House Bill 255 will give kids the chance to “work, learn and grow.”

“A generation ago more than half of teenagers aged 16 to 19 had a job. Today it’s close to one in three,” Pratt said. “What lessons are being learned from getting on social media or in video games or by putting off those lessons about personal responsibility?”

How does the bill compare to current law?

HB255 aligns Kentucky’s child labor laws with minimum federal guidelines set in the Fair Labor Standards Act. For the most part, Kentucky’s laws for 14 and 15 year olds were already aligned, but laws for 16 and 17 year olds were more restrictive.

Under current Kentucky child labor law, 16 and 17 year olds can work up to six hours on school days and eight on weekends, totaling up to 40 hours a week while maintaining a 2.0 GPA.

This age group cannot work between the hours of 10:30 p.m. and 6:30 a.m. on school days, and after 1 a.m. on a non-school night.

According to the FLSA, 16 and 17 year olds can be employed for unlimited hours in any occupation except those the Secretary of Labor deems hazardous.

‘Missing the mark’

Pratt said that one of the main goals of his bill is to make it easier for Kentucky employers to follow the law.

During floor debate, he brought up concerns that employers were solely consulting federal labor laws, and therefore might accidentally be breaking state law. Aligning state and federal law fixes that, he said.

His other goal is to instill work ethic in youth by helping them save for college, learn new skills and prepare for the future.

Rep. Josie Raymond, D-Louisville, said that HB255 won’t accomplish that, since minors can already work within broad parameters.

“If the goal of this bill is truly the stated goal, to get kids who play video games to go to work, it’s completely missing the mark,” Raymond said. “There are no teenagers who are saying, ‘Oh man, I’m going to work 40 hours a week right now, but if the legislature would just make it unlimited, then I’ll go work 50 hours.’ ”

Instead, she added, this bill will be “wildly successful” at allowing adult employers to exploit children.

Rep. David Meade, R-Stanford, said that parents still have responsibility for their children, and nothing in the bill requires kids to work long hours or give up extracurriculars. Truancy laws exist, he emphasized.

Raymond said that while the bill won’t impact kids from privileged families that can provide their basic needs, it targets those from low-income families that may need children to help pay living expenses.

Rep. Chad Aull, D-Lexington, cited a study published in the National Library of Medicine that found that students who work high intensity hours have a 54% higher chance of dropping out than their peers who limit their working hours.

“We need to focus on keeping kids in school, not pushing them out into the workforce prematurely,” he said.

Louisville Democrat Rachel Roarx shared concerns that this bill may make it more difficult for the Kentucky Labor Cabinet to enforce federal law, since all mention of the FLSA was removed in the bill.

She said that the federal government would have to step in if there was a violation, and it’s doubtful that they would have the time or resources to do so.

Pratt said that he did not consult the Department of Education and only talked to the Department of Labor on Wednesday, after the department reached out to him. He did not include their suggested changes in the bill, citing timeline issues.

“I’ll be voting no today because it is important that we let our kids be kids, get their education, get plenty of sleep, and enter into society with the needed tools to contribute to our communities, support their families, and above all, have a society that values their safety,” Roarx said.