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2 Florida bills could roll back child labor laws. What do they do?

A bill that rolls back restrictions on when children age 16 and 17 can work is scheduled for a hearing this week.
 
A worker is seen on scaffolding near Brick & Mortar along Central Avenue on April 26 in St. Petersburg.
A worker is seen on scaffolding near Brick & Mortar along Central Avenue on April 26 in St. Petersburg. [ CHRIS URSO | Times ]
Published Dec. 12, 2023|Updated Dec. 12, 2023

Two proposed bills in Florida’s Legislature could roll back child labor protections and allow some teenagers to work longer hours on school days and in hazardous professions.

The bills resemble legislation in several other states. The House bill is backed by a national conservative advocacy group based in Florida. Legislation in the Senate is backed by the Associated Builders and Contractors and Florida Home Builders Associations, two powerful industry lobbying groups.

Here’s what you need to know.

What would the House bill do?

HB 49, filed by Rep. Linda Chaney, R-St. Pete Beach, proposes removing all guidelines regulating when 16- and 17-year-olds can work.

Current law says that children that age can’t work more than eight hours on days before school, nor can they work during school hours and for more than 30 hours a week when school’s in session. It also prohibits them from working later than 11 p.m. on a day before school.

The House bill eliminates guaranteed half-hour meal breaks that those teens now get on work shifts of at least four continuous hours.

Although the bill has no Senate companion, it’s scheduled for its first House committee hearing Wednesday.

In an emailed statement, Chaney said her bill helps businesses and gives teenagers flexibility to work whatever hours best fit their schedule and financial goals.

“Families are struggling in the (worst) economy in decades and I want to do what I can to help by providing opportunity,” Chaney said in an email. “Government should not be in the way of people wanting to learn skills and make a living.”

Who is behind it?

Records obtained by the left-leaning labor advocacy nonprofit More Perfect Union show that the conservative advocacy group Foundation for Government Accountability wrote the draft legislation of the House bill and passed it along to Chaney’s legislative aide.

The foundation gets significant funding from billionaire donor Richard Uihlein, who has donated more than $2 million to Gov. Ron DeSantis over the past few years. The group, which is based in Florida, has pushed child labor rollbacks in other states as well.

When a reporter contacted Chaney about the bill, her office asked the foundation for help with talking points. The organization messaged back saying that the bill will help teenagers learn valuable skills, earn money while assisting small businesses with worker shortages and learn the value of the dollar, according to reporting from Florida-based watchdog newsletter Seeking Rents.

A Florida lobbyist working on the bill on behalf of Opportunity Solutions Project, the lobbying arm of the foundation, did not return calls for comment.

What is in the Senate bill?

The Senate bill, SB 460, filed by Sen. Corey Simon, R-Tallahassee, would allow children ages 16 and 17 to work on roofs, scaffolding and on construction sites if they have received an Occupational Safety and Health Administration certification and are under supervision.

Roofing work is deemed a hazardous occupation in state and federal law and is generally banned for children under 18. Florida law does allow youth in vocational training programs to bypass the prohibition.

In 2021, there were 16 fatal roofing job injuries in Florida, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The roofing provision is just one piece of the Senate legislation, which focuses on career and technical education for students. It does not currently have a House companion.

Simon did not return multiple requests for comment about his bill.

Who is behind it?

A lobbyist with the Associated Builders and Contractors provided a draft of the Senate legislation to Simon’s aide and copied an employee of the Florida Home Builders Association, according to Orlando Weekly.

Carol Bowen, the chief lobbyist for the Associated Builders and Contractors of Florida, said the organization helped develop some of the bill’s ideas related to career and technical education. Bowen said the language about teenagers on roofing and construction sites was requested by the homebuilders.

The provision about teenagers working on roofing or construction sites is intended to make sure that if someone has interest in the industry they could work a summer job under proper supervision, Bowen said.

Rusty Payton, the CEO of the Florida Home Builders Association, said there is no intent to put teenagers in a dangerous situation. Payton said they were involved with drafting the bill, including the language about roofing. But Payton said the roofing language “is not the thrust of the bill.”

He said he would recommend tweaking the legislation to remove the provision about teenagers working on roofing if it is found to violate U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration regulations.

Payton said the association wants teenagers to be able to work on construction sites under proper supervision to learn more about the trades and decide if it’s for them or not.

“We just haven’t done a good job recruiting or exposing kids to these professions,” Payton said.

What are the concerns about the proposals?

Jennifer Sherer, a director at the nonpartisan think tank Economic Policy Institute, said the Florida bills follow a nationwide trend of construction industry groups, homebuilder associations and other groups seeking exemptions to “long-standing, research-based limits” on hazardous work for teenagers.

She said the industries that depend most heavily on youth workers are the same industries that often pay the lowest wages, including agriculture, fast-food service and retail. Letting teenagers work more allows companies greater access to low-wage labor, Sherer said.

These rollbacks could jeopardize the health and safety of teenagers in school, she said, noting that research shows that fatigue from excessive work is tied to more car accidents and workplace injuries. She also said it could contribute to more teens dropping out of school, adding that high school graduation rates have risen in the wake of passage of stricter child labor laws.

“Are we committed as a society to ensuring equal opportunity, equal access to public education for every child no matter what their background is?” Sherer said. “Or are we willing to sort of open the door to going back to a world where a handful of wealthier children have full access to that kind of education and most others are in the workforce at younger and younger ages.”

David Metellus, the director of policy and politics at the Florida Immigrant Coalition, said he thinks the proposed legislation is a result of the immigration law passed by the Legislature last session, which cracks down on private businesses employing immigrants without permanent status and makes it a felony to transport people into Florida who entered the country illegally.

“We think it’s not going to be benefiting the kids, it’s only going to be benefiting the corporations,” Metellus said. “It’s bailing out the Legislature for bad policy as well.”

What is happening in other states?

States across the nation have passed legislation in recent years to ease restrictions on children working, including in New Jersey, Michigan, Iowa and Arkansas. At least 16 states have introduced or passed legislation that loosens child labor restrictions, according to the Economic Policy Institute, including Florida.

Some of the changes in other states include allowing younger children to work at places with alcohol and at liquor stores, eliminating age verification and parent permission, extending work hours and creating a subminimum wage for youth.

What is happening with child labor nationwide?

Sherer said the U.S. has continued to tolerate child labor in areas like agriculture. A 2023 New York Times investigation found that migrant children were found working across the country in violation of child labor laws in dangerous jobs, including in factories.

In the 2023 fiscal year, the U.S. Department of Labor found 5,792 minors employed in violation of labor laws, including 502 working in hazardous occupation.

What’s going on in Florida’s workforce?

Florida’s unemployment rate is lower than the national average — 2.8% compared to the nation’s 3.9%.

But Florida does have a worker shortage, with only 53 workers for every 100 open jobs, according to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

The shortages span industries including health care, teaching, construction, agriculture and restaurants.

What comes next?

The House and Senate bills have both been scheduled to be heard in three committees. If they receive favorable votes in all of those, they can go to the floor for a full chamber vote.

However, the bills will not be able to be signed into law unless there is matching language in the other chamber. No matching language exists for either bill at present.