Proposed rollback of child labor law criticized as possible child exploitation

Tampa Bay GOP Rep. Linda Chaney chaired the Pinellas County Legislative Delegation in Pinellas County on Oct. 26, 2023 (photo credit: Mitch Perry)

By Mitch Perry, Florida Phoenix

October 27, 2023

The proposed bill would amend current labor law in the state that says that 16- and 17-year-old are not allowed to work before 6:30 a.m. or after 11 p.m., or for more than eight hours a day when they have school the next day.

By Mitch Perry, Florida Phoenix

State lawmakers are considering a proposal that calls for eliminating restrictions on the number of hours 16- and 17-year-olds could work — ostensibly to let more teens get employed if families agree. But there are critics against it.

Dr. Chelsea Rivera, of Central Florida Jobs with Justice, said she had concerns about the proposed legislation because of safety and welfare.

“There’s been a lot of attention right now on protecting the education of our students and the sanctity of our education. But if students are working longer hours, that’s an immediate danger to their education,” Rivera told the Phoenix after a legislative meeting in the Tampa Bay area on Thursday.

“I’m also really concerned about our immigrant and BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Color) children who are already at increased risk of injuries in the workforce,” Rivera said.

The proposed legislation, HB 49, is sponsored by Republican House member Linda Chaney, who represents parts of Hillsborough and Pinellas in the Legislature. It would be considered in the 2024 legislative session that begins Jan. 9, 2024.

The proposed bill would amend current labor law in the state that says that 16- and 17-year-old are not allowed to work before 6:30 a.m. or after 11 p.m., or for more than eight hours a day when they have school the next day.

The bill would also lift restrictions that currently prohibit teens from working more than 30 hours a week.

The issue came up during a meeting of the Pinellas County legislative delegation on Thursday, and Chaney heard directly from a handful of citizens who believe that the proposed bill would exploit children, particularly from low-income families.

“Chair Chaney, why are you sponsoring a bill that allows for the exploitation of children? Are these the values that best represent Pinellas County?” asked Christy Foust. “This bill will primarily endanger migrant children and those from low-income families.”

Chaney did not respond directly to any of the comments from the public about her proposal during the legislative meeting.

Prior to the meeting, Chaney told the Phoenix that the purpose of the legislation is to give 16 and 17-year-olds and their families “the choice to work if that fits within their lifestyle and their financial needs.”

“I’ve always been a champion for small businesses, and it’s no secret that all businesses are struggling with labor,” Chaney said. “So it came out of the environment of a need for labor.”

There has been a labor shortage in the country coming out of the pandemic. A report from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, published earlier this month, said while there are 9.6 million job openings in the U.S. currently, there are only 6.4 million unemployed workers.

Acadia Jacob, advocacy director with Florida Voices for Health, said that she believed that the proposal was a “litmus test” that other states may enact in the coming year.

In fact, Florida is the 13th state this year to introduce legislation that would roll back labor laws intended to protect minors, according to the Economic Policy Institute, a nonprofit think tank in Washington, D.C.

The organization says that the bill “proposes rolling back long-standing state standards adopted more than a century ago in response to widespread exploitation of children” and contends it will “harm Florida’s poorest youth and their families.”

The U.S. Department of Labor reported earlier this year that they had seen a 69 percent increase in children being employed illegally by companies.

But Rep. Chaney said her bill would not weaken current labor laws.

“All of the laws about child law protections in the workforce are not touched in this bill. They’re still in place. They cannot work in harmful environments,” she says.

The bill also carves out an exemption for pages in the Florida Legislature, who currently must be the ages of 15 to 18 to participate in the page program.

The proposed legislation would have to be approved in both chambers — the Florida House and Senate — and Gov. Ron DeSantis would have to sign off. If governor does sign off, the law would be effective July 1, 2024.

This story was originally published by Florida Phoenix and has been republished under a Creative Commons license.

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