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New law weakening child labor protections in Arkansas takes effect

A child labors in a textile mill circa 1918.
Wiki Commons
A child labors in a textile mill circa 1918.

Work permits are no longer required for children younger than 16 years old in Arkansas under Act 195, a new child labor law that took effect Aug. 1.

The Youth Hiring Act of 2023, signed into law by Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders last March, repeals a century-old law requiring employers of children under 16 to verify a child’s age as well as parental consent.

Republican Rep. Rebecca Burkes of Lowell, the bill's co-sponsor pitched the measure to members of the Arkansas House Chamber last February, prior to a final vote.

“This bill simply seeks to eliminate the work permit required by our state government before somebody under the age of 16 can get a job," Burkes said. "At least 15 states do not have this work permit requirement, and the federal government does not require this work permit.”

Child labor laws date back to the industrial revolution, when children worked long hours for scant wages, often in dangerous work conditions like factories and coal mines.

There’s no reason why anyone should have to get the government's permission to get a job
Rep. Rebecca Burkes

Arkansas’s originating child labor law, passed in 1914, required parents and employers to sign and submit work permits for approval by the state division of labor, which Burkes cited as onerous.

“There’s no reason why anyone should have to get the government's permission to get a job," Burkes said. "Bear in mind that the employer is still responsible and liable if they violate any of the other numerous child labor laws that we have.”

Those laws include limiting the number of hours minors are allowed to work and what sorts of jobs they can be hired to work.

But Laura Kellams, Northwest Arkansas director of Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families, disagreed. She said a child’s work permit does three important things.

“It ensured that that they had proof of the young person's age, that the young person had permission from a parent or guardian to do this job and very importantly that the employer outlined and attested to the fact that they were going to follow the special labor laws that apply to young people that age,” Kellams said.

One example is that the permits require employers to ensure children under 16 would not work late on school nights. They are not allowed to work overnight shifts either. Kellams said in effect the new law erases a paper trail showing parental or guardian consent, as well as age verification.

We need to be very careful about the types of work that they're allowed to do because their bodies are smaller. They need more protection.
Laura Kellams, director Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families

“It was a layer of protection we provided to young people, an acknowledgement the hiring of 14-year-old isn't the same as hiring a 16-year-old," Kellams said. "That we need to be very protective of their hours in their day to ensure that work doesn't interfere with their education. And that we need to be very careful about the types of work that they're allowed to do because their bodies are smaller. They need more protection.”

Kellams said no industry or businesses came forward during the debate to testify for the measure, but the Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce has publicly opposed it.

She said one group that influenced Rep. Burkes is the Foundation for Government Accountability, a conservative think tank headquartered in Florida. Republican lawmakers in over a dozen states are considering bills to weaken child labor protections similar to what Arkansas and four other states have done.

The question is why.

“We didn't expect to see an attack on child labor protections in Arkansas," Kellams said. "Nationally there's a push to address a labor shortage with young people who are cheaper to hire.”

According to the progressive Economic Policy Institute, protective child labor laws are being eliminated at a precarious time just as violations are rising. The U.S. Department of Labor recently reported that between October 2022 and July of this year, nearly 4,500 children were employed in violation of federal child labor laws and assessed more than $6.6 million in penalties against their employers.

“There’s nothing wrong with having a job at a young age," said Democrat State Sen. Greg Leding. "I was working at the age of 14 but I do think we have to be careful. We have to have appropriate guards in place to protect children because that's obviously a young age.”

Just a few weeks before Act 195 was debated on the Senate floor, a poultry processing plant in Batesville and another in Green Forest were found violating child labor laws.

“So I'm not sure why we took a step in the other direction by loosening these laws and think if anything we needed to be moving in the other direction-- as we ultimately ended up doing with act 687,” Leding said.

Act 687, which was cosponsored by Sen. Leding, increases penalties for child labor violations.

“I think that is a good and necessary thing," Leding said. "My only comment there is, that's not a preventive measure— That is a reactive measure. So, if anybody's going to be subject to that, they have already had a violation and I think we should be doing more to protect children from ever being in that kind of position. So, I'm proud and happy that we were able to pass 687, but I still questioned the need for Act 195.”

Arkansas’s current child labor laws bars minors under age 16 from working in heavy building trades, mines, sawmill, and in bars. It also prohibits children under 16 from working in food processing plants.

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Jacqueline Froelich is an investigative reporter and news producer for <i>Ozarks at Large.</i>
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