Child labor laws turn minor violations into major problems

John Hildebrand

When summer comes around, many businesses find children knocking at their doors looking for work. In years past, child labor laws were pretty loose and businesses could hire a minor to do almost anything. As child labor laws have become more stringent, however, many employers have minors doing work well outside the allowed parameters. 

First of all, what ages are we talking about? It’s legal to hire minors beginning at age 9. All children are considered minors until they reach age 18.

Understand there’s a great deal of complexity involved in hiring a minor. So if you have a question, contact a human resource professional or labor attorney. Don’t just wing it. If you’re wrong, it could provide costly. Employers who violate child labor laws could be subject to civil or criminal penalties — not just a slap on the wrist from the labor board. These penalties will be much harsher than the same violations involving adult workers.

Here are some of the major points on laws that offer clear guidance:

  • General rules: If there are differences between federal and state laws, you should assume that whichever law provides more protection for minor workers is the one to follow. You don’t get to choose the one that suits you best. There are several exemptions to the laws. Home chores, minors working for their parents and newspaper delivery are generally exempt from labor laws. Parents may hire their own children for most jobs other than manufacturing and mining. The guiding principle for these jobs is that it must not be considered hazardous or interfere with regular school hours.
  • In all cases when employing a minor, you must have proof of age. This is important, especially given changes in regulations by age. The jobs that children under 12 may perform are limited mostly to jobs around the home —pulling weeds, shoveling snow and the like — but never with any power-driven equipment.
  • Age breakdown: The law separates child labor regulations by age. The age ranges are 9 to 11 years, 12 to 13 years, 14 to 15 years and 16 to 17 years. As you might suspect, laws become more restrictive the younger the child. 

For all ages there are some common rules.  Work must not interfere with regular school hours.  School is considered mandatory for all minors unless they already have a high school diploma. If a child is under age 18 and says he or she doesn’t have to go to school, ask to see a diploma. Breaks and rest periods follow the same rules as those for adults. Wages may be paid at 15 percent less than the state minimum wage. 

  • Hours: Minors may work no more than six hours on a school day and no more than eight hours in a 24-hour period if the next day isn’t a school day. Minors may not work more than a 40-hour work week. 

Once a minor reaches 17 years old, they’re governed by regular adult working hours.  However, if they’re still in school, they can’t miss school to work. Minors generally may work between 5 a.m. and 9:30 p.m. unless the next day is not a school day.  Babysitters have some exemptions from these working hours.

  • Hazardous work environment: In all cases minors may not work in what’s considered a hazardous work environment.  The list of hazardous work includes, but is not limited to, working with steam boilers, manufacturing, explosives, any power-driven equipment, slaughter or meat packing, wrecking or demolition, roofing or excavation.  This is by no means a complete list, but rather some examples. 

Take note of the wording any power-driven equipment. This is a broad regulation that affects a wide variety of jobs, so be really careful here. If it’s considered hazardous, don’t ask a minor to do it. By the way, minors may not sell lottery tickets or sell or serve alcohol. 

If I were to sum up all of these laws, I would say a couple of things. Go ahead and hire a minor, just be careful when you do. Don’t interfere with school. Don’t put kids in danger with power equipment. And carefully consider the proposed task before assigning it to a minor.  Finally, if you’re not sure and want to hire a minor, ask an HR professional beforehand. The penalties are severe if you do it wrong.