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US Child Labor Laws

The Fair Labor Standards Act protects children from most forms of child labor, but there are critical exemptions - including agriculture. At the State level, additional protections can be put in place, but right now several States are trying - or have succeeded - to roll back their child labor laws. 

 What does Federal law say? 

At the Federal level, the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) contains protections for most children against many forms of child labor, which are in line with most, but not all, of the international standards on child labor. However, the FLSA makes exceptions for children working in agriculture, leaving them with far fewer rights. 

Violations of federal child labor laws carry civil monetary penalties of up to $15,138 per child employed illegally, while greater violations including serious injury and death could lead to fines of $68,801 to $137,602. This money goes to the US Treasury and none of it is used to compensate the child or their family. Where states have additional protections, fines are also payable.

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Non-agricultural child labor

  • In non-agricultural sectors, the minimum age for part-time work is 14, and for full-time work it is 16.

  • 14-15 year olds cannot work more than 3 hours on a school day, or 8 hours on a non-school day.

  • 14-15 year olds cannot work during school hours.

  • 14-15 year olds cannot work before 7am or after 7pm when school is in session. 

  • When school is in session, 14-15 year olds cannot work more than 18 hours per week.

  • During vacation periods, 14-15 year olds cannot work more than 40 hours per week.

  • There are no limitations on hours worked per day or week for children aged 16-17 years old.

  • No child (anyone aged up to and including 17 years old) is allowed to work in hazardous child labor. The US Labor Secretary prescribes the industries and roles which are hazardous.

  • Under the Federal Youth Minimum Wage Program, anyone under the age of 20 must be paid a standard, sub-minimum wage, which is $4.25 per hour for the first 90 consecutive days of employment, and the US minimum wage thereafter (or sooner if the worker reaches the age of 20 before the 90 days).

  • The exceptions to the wage rules are children who work in industries where they receive tips (Federal rate of $2.13 per hour), and children who have disabilities (no amount specified other than 'sub-minimum'). These exceptions apply to children and adults.

There are some exemptions from these rules, such as for child actors and children who distribute newspapers.  

The FLSA does not stipulate the need for work permits or age certificates. 

Many states have additional child labor laws. Usually, the main positive additional requirement is for work permits and age certificates, and several states pay either the standard minimum wage regardless of age, or the State federal wage, which can be significantly higher than the Federal minimum wage. 

 

However, several states have laws which are in direct conflict with the FLSA. These might include greater numbers of hours a child can work when school is in session, working beyond 7pm when school is in session or beyond 9pm during vacation periods, and reducing the the list of hazardous occupations which are off limits to children. For example:

  • When school is in session, Colorado state laws allow children to work double the hours permitted in the FLSA per day, and they can work from 5am and up until 9.30pm.

  • Even before the new 'Youth Hiring Act' was passed in 2023, Arkansas allowed children aged 14-15 to work up to 48 hours per week, regardless of school being in session.

 

At present, lawmakers in several states are trying to further reduce child labor protections. Find out more using our US child labor map.

Agricultural child labor

  • There is no minimum age for a child to work full-time, including during school hours, on a farm owned or operated by a parent or guardian. 

  • There is no minimum age for a child to work outside of school hours on a farm which is not covered by the FLSA (i.e. where the gross sales are less than $500,000 per year). There is also no minimum wage requirement on these farms. 

  • Children aged 12-15 may work in agriculture for unlimited hours at any time of the year, as long as they are not working during school hours..For children aged 12-13, parental consent is required, or the parent/guardian must be working on the same farm.

  • A child aged 16 or 17 years old is allowed to work in hazardous conditions in agriculture.

 

Hazardous work in agriculture as defined by the Department of Labor ranges from operation of heavy machinery to working in high-risk environments such as grain stores, where crops require oxygen limitation/toxic chemicals, and in areas where large animals are kept. However, there is no prohibition on working with crops which are themselves toxic, such as tobacco.

 

At the State level, some states have stronger protections for children working in agriculture. For example:

 

  • Florida sets a minimum age of 18 for some hazardous agricultural work. 

  • Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and Rhode Island all prohibit children under 16 from stripping and sorting tobacco; Delaware has the same prohibition unless the child is under adult supervision. 

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 What are the problems with the FLSA

There should be no distinction between agricultural and non-agricultural work. Working long hours carries the same risk for children of falling behind with school and social development regardless of where they work. Working late into the night or very early in the morning in any sector will make it difficult for a child to concentrate in school or do their homework, and puts them at greater risk of harm. There is also no justification for a 12 year-old child to be allowed to do farm work, when the same 12 year old child would - rightly - be prevented from selling shoes or burgers in the same town.

  

The FLSA exemptions for children in agriculture also have discriminatory and racist roots. They are the result of a political compromise when it was introduced which preserved predominantly non-White agricultural child labor in the West and South. However, 75 years after the FLSA was enacted, these exemptions remain, as does the racial bias. Agricultural child labor is conducted predominantly by Hispanic children. 

The continued exemptions for child labor in agriculture also fail to take into account eight decades of research which demonstrate the particularly harmful impacts of farm working on children. 

  • Children are at greater health risk from exposure to pesticides than adults. Pesticides have been linked to asthma, dermatitis, learning disabilities, leukemia, brain tumors and some childhood cancers. Ultimately, children’s bodies are not prepared to handle toxic chemicals. 

  • Children laboring in tobacco fields are further exposed to the harm of working with a toxic crop. Exposure to tobacco and nicotine can result in serious symptoms, including nausea, vomiting, loss of appetite, headaches, dizziness, skin rashes, difficulty breathing, and irritation to their eyes and mouths.

However, it is not just the agricultural exemptions which are problematic. With the exception of hazardous work, there is a complete absence of regulations for 16-17 year olds in the FLSA, even though legally they are still classified as minors.

Although not directly a problem within the FLSA, the fact remains that plenty of states have laws which violate the FLSA. Conflicts between Federal and State laws are not uncommon in the United States, but given that these particular laws relate to children, it is surprising that there has not been more pushback by the Federal government to enable greater protection.

FLSA and international child labor standards

 

The FLSA exemptions for children working in agriculture mean that the United States does not meet international standards for child labor, nor do the additional protections made by the states which have them. 

  • The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child protects children from work that is hazardous or harmful to their health, safety, education, and moral development; it also requires states to set a minimum age for employment. 

  • The ILO Minimum Age Convention has a minimum employment age of 15 years old, and 18 years old for hazardous work, and the Convention makes it explicit that these minimums apply to agriculture. 

 

However, the United States has not ratified either of these Conventions.

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