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Missouri bill would loosen child labor law by removing work permit requirements

Sen. Nick Schroer, R-Defiance, is sponsoring a bill to eliminate the formal work permit process for child labor.
Annelise Hanshaw
Missouri Independent
Sen. Nick Schroer, R-Defiance, is sponsoring a bill to eliminate the formal work permit process for child labor.

A push to eliminate Missouri’s requirement for children under 16 to obtain official work permits before they can begin a job could be debated by the House this week.

In order to work in Missouri, 14 and 15 year olds must obtain a certificate issued by their school, with information from their prospective employer about the details of the job as well as parental consent and age verification.

The child’s school, or if they are homeschooled, a parent, must review that information to ensure it’s in line with state laws that restrict the kind of work children can do and their hours. Once the school issues the certificate, a copy is filed with the Missouri Department of Labor and Industrial Relations.

Children under 14 are generally not permitted to work and those 16 and older aren’t subject to the same restrictions.

The bill, sponsored by Republican state Rep. Dave Hinman of O’Fallon and a similar one sponsored by state Sen. Nick Schroerof Defiance, would eliminate the formal work permit process. Instead of being overseen by schools and the state labor agency, the only requirement would be that a parent sign a permission slip for the child’s employer.

Proponents have characterized schools’ role in the process as unnecessary and outdated, and said parents should have the largest role.

“With discussions with our superintendent and other folks around here,” Hinman said in an interview with The Independent this week, “we felt it was better that the parents make that decision instead of schools being the ones that sign off on it.”

Hinman’s bill was voted out of committee in March, and he hopes the full House will debate it before session ends — perhaps as early as this week. The Senate version of the bill was heard in committee earlier this month and hasn’t been voted out yet.

The bill is about “empowering employers and youth,” Schroer said in a committee hearing earlier this month.

“While easing the regulations, this legislation also prioritizes parental involvement by mandating signed permission slips…ensuring that parents are informed and involved in their child’s work activities” Schroer said.

Arkansas passed a similar law last yeareliminating youth employment permits, though it didn’t include the parental permission slip piece. It faced opposition from child advocacy groups and others, who worried it would remove a layer of oversight protecting child workers in a time when child labor violations have gained attention nationally for being on the rise.

Proponents have insisted that the bill won’t affect child labor violations because businesses will still be required to comply with state and federal law.

In Missouri, the legislation has flown largely under the radar: No one testified in opposition during hearings on the bill the last two years. A handful of individuals submitted written opposition.

John Fliter, an associate professor of political science at Kansas State University, who studies child labor, said in an interview with The Independent that certificates are an important safeguard for children.

“We need to be careful because at the same time that [some states are] doing this, weakening restrictions, we’re seeing an increase in child labor violations and some really bad cases over the last few years,” he said.

The certificates, Fliter added, produce a record of employers acknowledging they will follow the law, and allow schools to play a “supervisory role” and ensure children are “not working to the detriment of their education.”

State Sen. Doug Beck, a Democrat from Affton, asked during a committee hearing earlier this month how the state could be sure employers were still doing things like age verification if the government wouldn’t be allowed to require permits to oversee the process.

“Where’s the enforcement on this bill exactly?” Beck asked. “…Where’s the accountability?”

“I think the accountability is with the parents and the business owners,” Schroer replied.

Schools’ role

Kids attending the Ralls County School District board buses at the end of the school day on Monday, Nov. 20, 2023, in Center, Mo. While most of the district’s buses are powered by gas or diesel, it has recently added two electric school buses to its fleet. The buses were obtained via Inflation Reduction Act grants, intended to introduce electric buses to rural and high-need school districts.
Tristen Rouse
St. Louis Public Radio
Kids attending the Ralls County School District board buses at the end of the school day on Monday, Nov. 20, 2023, in Center, Missouri.

Earlier versions of the House bill included language to extend the hours in the day children are allowed to work, but that’s since been removed because the sponsor found out it conflicts with federal law.

Children under 16 are legally required to be off work by 7 p.m. during the school year.

The reason Hinman initially filed the bill was because he wanted to push that time back, after he was approached by a restaurant owner in his district who was struggling with staffing those later hours.

“I’d like to see that time adjusted hopefully, up till eight o’clock, nine o’clock. Just to give a little bit more time for those businesses,” he said.

Now, the bill includes a provision that those restrictions apply “unless a later time is allowed by federal law,” which Hinman said is intended so Missouri can automatically change its law if the federal government does.

When he started looking into these laws, Hinman found it “an odd thing that the school district did that,” referring to the certification requirements, which led him to look at a bill filed last year and incorporate some of its language.

Youth work permits aren’t federally mandated but the majority of states require them.

Thirty-four states require youth work permits. The details vary, including whether they’re issued by a state agency or schools and what ages are included.

State Rep. Holly Jones, a Republican from Eureka, said in the committee hearing that she “hates” that schools are the ones who sign off on certificates.

“I really don’t love the schools having so much power over families and students,” she said.

A similar bill last year, sponsored by Sen. Andrew Koenig, a Manchester Republican, didn’t gain momentum, clearing a Senate committee but never being debated by the full chamber.

A Washington Post investigation last year found the Florida-based conservative think tank, Foundation for Government Accountability, and its lobbying arm, the Opportunity Solutions Project, has been behind the push to roll back certain child labor protections in state legislatures.

“States should be allowing their teenagers to decide, with their parents, to get a job — not the government,” an issue paperpublished by Foundation for Government Accountability last year said. The paper characterized the issue as pitting “parents vs. educators and regulators.”

That group played an important role in Arkansas’ elimination of work certificates, the Post reported, and in Missouri, a lobbyist for Opportunity Solutions Project, James Harris, sent Koenig’s staff draft legislation last year before he filed it. Hinman said Harris didn’t approach him with the language.

Harris was the first one to testify in the committee hearings this year. In the House hearing, he said his first job as a teen helped him when he was a “law breaker” youth.

“I look back at that job and I learned so much,” Harris said.

“…Part of this is to help businesses be able to have more of a workforce for people to work,” Harris said during a later discussion about how pushing back the 7 p.m. restriction could cause businesses to worry about breaking federal law and not bolster their workforce.

Neither Harris nor the Foundation for Government Accountability responded to interview requests.

Other support has come from business groups including the Missouri Chamber of Commerce, Missouri Retailers and Missouri Grocers Association.

The legislation was voted out of committee on party lines. Democrats opposed it.

Hinson said in an interview with The Independent that while he’s not optimistic it will pass this year — with just three weeks left in session — he is hopeful it will come to the floor and that discussion will help improve the bill for next year.

“I would love to have the opportunity to have a full discussion with everybody on the floor, both sides of the aisle and see what the thoughts are so next year if we need to make corrections to the bill, that we can make it an even better bill,” Hinman said. “…[The legislation] is one of my priorities.”

‘One more set of eyes’

Maura Browning, spokesperson for Missouri’s Department of Labor and Industrial Relations said the agency can’t comment on pending legislation.

But speaking broadly about how the state oversees child work requirements, labor department officials said they rely on the current licensing practice and see it as a tool to help ensure kids don’t enter hazardous work or take on excessive hours.

The required form is just one page. In it, the child’s prospective employer must provide the specific job duties, hours and an acknowledgment they will abide by state law. Schools verify a child’s age and can review their grades.

Todd Smith, who directs the Division of Labor Standards within the state labor department, said schools help identify when the descriptions employers submit should be flagged as hazardous.

Kids under 16 aren’t allowed to do certain jobs, like operating a meat slicer or handling any hot oil or grease.

“We will enforce whatever the legislature passes, obviously, but in a perfect world, I think it’s important to have that education piece to share with employers,” Smith said in an interview with The Independent.

Missouri issued over 10,000 youth employment licenses last year.

Patrick Watkins, who works as the wage and hour section manager in the state labor department, said going through the school “gives us one more set of eyes to look at those hazardous job descriptions.”

Watkins added that in the current process the employer “agrees that they understand our restrictions, but more importantly, they have to fill in exactly what job duties the child will be performing and we catch a lot of hazardous titles just in that reveal alone.”

Child advocacy and social justice organizations reached by The Independent said they are not taking a position on the bill because they are deciding to stay out of the issue or are simply not up to speed on the legislation.

This story was originally published by the Missouri Independent.

Clara Bates covers social services and poverty for The Missouri Independent.