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Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders signed a law this week rolling back requirements that the state verify the ages of workers under 16 and provide them with work certificates permitting them to work.
Effectively, the new law signed by the Republican governor applies to those who are 14 and 15 years old because in most cases Arkansas businesses can’t employ those under 14.
Under the Youth Hiring Act of 2023, children under 16 don’t have to get the Division of Labor’s permission to be employed. The state also no longer has to verify the age of those under 16 before they take a job. The law doesn’t change the hours or kinds of jobs kids can work.
“The Governor believes protecting kids is most important, but this permit was an arbitrary burden on parents to get permission from the government for their child to get a job,” Sanders’ communications director Alexa Henning said in a statement to NPR. “All child labor laws that actually protect children still apply and we expect businesses to comply just as they are required to do now.”
Workers under 16 in Arkansas have had to get these permits for decades.
Supporters of the new law say it gets rid of a tedious requirement, streamlines the hiring process, and allows parents — rather than the government — to make decisions about their children.
But opponents say the work certificates protected vulnerable youth from exploitation.
“It was wild to listen to adults argue in favor of eliminating a one-page form that helps the Department of Labor ensure young workers aren’t being exploited,” the group Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families wrote about the law in a legislative session recap.
Arkansas isn’t the only state looking to make it easier to employ kids in a tight labor market and fill an economic need. Bills in other states, including Iowa and Minnesota, would allow some teenagers to work in meatpacking plants and construction, respectively. New Jersey expanded teens’ working hours in 2022.
But the bills are also occurring alongside a rising tide of minors employed in violation of child labor laws, which have more than tripled since 2015, and federal regulators have promised to crack down on businesses that employ minors in hazardous occupations.
There’s no excuse for “why these alarming violations are occurring, with kids being employed where they shouldn’t even be in the first place,” Jessica Looman, principal deputy administrator of the Wage and Hour Division, told NPR in February.
Investigators from the Department of Labor found hundreds of children employed in dangerous jobs in meatpacking plants. Last month, Packers Sanitation Services paid a $1.5 million fine — the maximum amount — for employing 102 children to work in dangerous meatpacking facility jobs.