Blog Posts > HB 5159 and HB 5162 Weaken Child Labor Protections, Increase Risk of Dangerous Work
March 4, 2024

HB 5159 and HB 5162 Weaken Child Labor Protections, Increase Risk of Dangerous Work

After 100 years of progress, child labor violations in the United States are soaring, and corporate interest groups are pushing coordinated efforts across states to roll back critical child labor protections, with at least 12 states enacting harmful rollbacks. In West Virginia, the House of Delegates passed HB 5159, which would weaken child labor protections for 14- and 15-year-olds at the urging of the Foundation for Government Accountability, one of the corporate-backed groups behind this nationwide effort. It will now be up for consideration in the state Senate.

HB 5159 Would Eliminate Protections for Youngest Youth Workers

HB 5159 would repeal the current work permit process that is in place for 14- and 15-year-old youth workers. The work permit contains a section completed by the youth’s employer that includes a detailed description of tasks and equipment the child will be completing and using, provides an intended work schedule showing specific dates and hours, and assures that the minor will receive their legally required breaks. This documentation must be on file and available to the West Virginia Department of Labor, which enforces the state’s child labor laws.  Additionally, the work permit is signed off on by a parent or guardian and a representative from the child’s school. Together, these sections ensure that all parties are aware of the law and the family’s rights and that any job will not interfere with a young person’s education. It also serves as a paper trail and can aid in investigations of possible child labor law violations. From there, the school district signs off on the permit after ensuring that the work and hours are permissible under state law.

HB 5159 replaces that process with an age certificate for 14- and 15-year-olds, which is to be issued by the State Commissioner of Labor. An amendment added in committee does add a provision for written parental consent, but without the detailed description of work and hours from the employer, that consent will be far less informed than it is under the current work permit process. Further, it is unclear if the age certificate is required under the current bill language. Because the age certificate is optional under current law for 16- and 17-year-olds—it is not required but must be made available on request—it is unclear if it would be required or merely optional for 14- and 15-year-olds under the proposal.

HB 5159 Increases Risks of Dangerous Work, School Dropouts

With the elimination of the work permit, the state and federal agencies tasked with child labor compliance will have less information available to investigate potential violations. Some evidence suggests that states with work permits in place have fewer child labor violations in the first place because employers have a clearer understanding of what is and is not allowed under the law. In addition, if HB 5159 becomes law parents will have less opportunity to understand permissible state law and what types of work and hours their young children are eligible for. This makes it more likely that youth workers will be placed in dangerous jobs in which they could be injured or even killed.

Research also shows that teenagers who spend long hours in jobs are more likely to drop out of high school than those who worked less or did not work at all. Reducing informed consent among parents and employers of youth makes it more likely that 14- and 15-year olds will be placed in work environments that violate state and federal child labor laws.  

HB 5162 Also Puts Youth at Risk of Hazardous Jobs

HB 5162 would weaken child labor protections for teens under the guise of a “Youth Apprenticeship Program.” In actuality, it creates a carveout wherein minors could work in particularly hazardous industries currently barred by both state and federal law, including extremely dangerous roofing, trenching, and excavating. While language in the bill requires that the program complies with the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), the program could still put youth in hazardous jobs for very small companies that do not fall under the FLSA. Typically, businesses that have less than $500,000 in annual receipts do not fall under the FLSA. Nationally, that means that more than half of construction firms would be exempt from their rules.

Young workers have high rates of job-related injuries, in part due to limited or no prior work experience and lack of safety training. Additionally, youth workers are often uncomfortable questioning when a situation does not feel safe or appropriate. It is incumbent on government to require that robust protections are in place to ensure that young people are safe in the workplace and are fulfilling their commitment to education, which is essential to their long-term life success. West Virginia lawmakers must reject the numerous efforts of corporate interest groups to reduce protections for children and exploit our young people.

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