US child labor laws were enacted in the wake of the Great Depression. Before that, US children were allowed to work practically any job someone would hire them for. During the Depression, some argue that the child labor laws were passed so that adults could compete with children for jobs - adults were more than willing to take what a child was being paid to work. Other say the laws were enacted to protect children being exploited, injured and even killed while working full-time jobs. Still others say it was a combination off the two things.

Regardless of the reasons, today US child labor laws are seen as protective measures.

Recent Events

Two recent events make it clear that US children are still working illegally for US employers.

Western Wats

Department of Labor (DOL) investigators discovered children 13 years old working in the call center or "phone banks" for Western Wats ("Wats"). It's a Utah-based market research firm that takes surveys from call centers in seven states. Wats also had close to 1,500 children who were 14 or 15 years old working more than three hours on a school day or more than eight hours on a weekend day.

The DOL fined Wats $550,000 for these and other violations.

Adkin Blue Ribbon Blueberry Company

Investigators from the DOL found four children working in the berry fields owned and operated by the Adkin Blue Ribbon Blueberry Co. At least two of the children were under 12 years old, including one who was only six years old. Adkin's general manager said that the company doesn't allow or condone children working in its fields and that an internal investigation is underway. He also stated that some of adult workers sometimes bring their children to work because they don't have child care.

As a result of the DOL's investigation, grocer and retail giants Wal-Mart, Kroger and Meijer have stopped doing business with Adkin.

Some Basics

The federal Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) spells out US child labor standards. The FLSA specifies the ages at which children or minors can perform certain jobs. Here are some highlights:

  • Children under 18 years old can't do certain jobs that are hazardous, such as working with explosives and coal mining
  • Children who are at least 16 may work on farms and perform hazardous jobs, such as drive machinery
  • Minors who're at 14 years old may work on farms, but it must be during non-school hours. And, children who're at least 12 may do farm work if the work it's done: (1) Outside of school hours; (2) with his parent's permission, and; (3) the parent also works on the farm
  • Children under 12 years old may work on a farm outside of school hours if his parent(s) or guardians own or operate the farm
  • During the summer or when school is out of session, children under 16 years old may work up to 40 hours per week. During the school year, they can't work more than three hours per day on a school day and no more than 18 hours a week in total

Violating the FLSA is costly. The DOL may make an employer pay a fine or penalty of up to $ 11,000 for each violation.

And don't forget about state law. Many states have child labor laws more restrictive than the FLSA when it comes the types of jobs young people can perform and at what ages. 

Know and Respect the Law

Parents, employers and even the children should understand some of the basics of US child labor laws. Just because times may be tough and the family needs the money, or the business's bottom line can't afford experienced adult workers, there's no need for the exploitation of children in the work force. Know what jobs children and minors may do, at what ages they're allowed to do it and for how long.

Employers should take the hint from Wats and Adkin and be aware of the hefty fines for violating the FLSA. They're going to hurt the bottom line worse than paying full wages to adults. And if that's not enough, losing customers for your goods and services isn't going to help the profit margin, either.

Questions for Your Attorney

  • Do I need to ask teenage workers to get some type of work permit?
  • A kid asked me for a job working in my hay fields and he told me he was 14 years old. I found out later that he's only 11, and I'm being investigated by state and federal agencies. Can I really get into trouble if the kid lied to me? What should I do to protect myself next time?
  • If I get fined by the DOJ for violating the FLSA, do I have to pay the whole fine all at once? If so I'll go bankrupt. Can we work out a payment plan?

Tagged as: Labor and Employment, illegal work, farm children, employment lawyer