Child Labor Laws in the United States: An Overview

For millions of Americans, getting a part-time job as a teen is the first step to joining the workforce. In today’s society, teenagers tend to work part-time, low-skill jobs like stocking shelves, working as cashiers and holding entry-level restaurant positions such as hostesses and busboys.

Adolescents work short hours in safe environments because of the laws put in place to protect them. During the Industrial Revolution, children as young as three years old would work in factories alongside their parents, where their small size made them ideal workers for reaching into small spaces between machines to retrieve dropped and loose parts. During this period and for centuries prior, children worked on their family farms and would often take on apprenticeships around age 10.

It was not until the twentieth century that reformers passed legislation to make the American workplace safer for children by reducing the number of hours they could work and the types of jobs they could perform. Today, minors are barred from seventeen occupations, with further restrictions for children younger than 16 years old.

The National Child Labor Committee

The National Child Labor Committee was created in 1904 to address and remedy the issue of rampant, dangerous child labor in the United States. It became instrumental to the passage of the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, which is currently the most comprehensive child labor law in the United States legal code.

The Committee continued to lobby for the American worker through the middle of the twentieth century, promoting the Manpower Development and Training Act of 1962, the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964 and the Vocational Education Act of 1963.Today, it educates children about life in the workforce and works to prevent the exploitation of young workers.

The Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938

The Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 regulates record keeping, youth employment, minimum wage and overtime standards in the United States.

In its section about youth employment, the FLSA states the types of work minors may perform and the federal limits on the number of hours they may work.

Minors younger than fourteen years old are limited to only a few types of employment. They are as follows:

  • Performing on television, radio, in the theater and movies
  • Delivering newspapers
  • Gathering evergreens and making evergreen wreaths
  • Babysitting casually. This means occasional babysitting work that does not last more than a few hours, not working regular shifts at a licensed childcare center.
  • Working in their parents’ small businesses, as long as these businesses are not in coal mining, manufacturing or any of the occupations minors are prohibited from holding.

Workers aged 14 and 15 are limited to the following hour restrictions:

  • No more than three hours on school days
  • No more than 18 hours per week while school is in session
  • No more than eight hours per day when school is not in session
  • No more than 40 hours per week when school is not in session
  • Minors may not work between the hours of 7 p.m. and 7 a.m. When school is not in session, this is changed to 9 p.m. to 7 a.m.

Minors aged 14 and 15 are also limited to certain types of jobs. These include, but are not limited to:

  • Retail
  • Lifeguarding at swimming pools and amusement parks
  • Delivery of parcels on foot and by bicycle
  • Washing produce in grocery stores
  • Yardwork that does not involve power tools
  • Transporting tools for skilled tradespeople

There is no federal limit on the number of hours minors aged 16 and 17 may work. Some states enforce limits on these minors’ working hours. Minors aged 16 and 17 may not work in any of the prohibited occupations. Once an adolescent reaches the age of 18, there are no limits to the type of work he or she can do.

Youth Employment in Agriculture

Special rules apply to minors working in agriculture. This is because many farms in the United States are family-operated and require their children’s labor to be productive.

When school is not in session, minors younger than 16 may perform any type of non-hazardous work on farms at any time of day. As with other issues related to youth employment, certain states have further laws in place that employers must obey in addition to federal law.

Children aged 12 and younger must have written parental consent to work on farms other than their own, and these farms must be exempt from federal minimum wage laws. Youths aged 12 and 13 may also work on farms other than their parents’ with written parental permission, but they are not limited to farms exempt from the federal minimum wage law. Fourteen- and 15-year-old workers do not need parental permission to work on farms other than those owned by their families.

Once an adolescent turns 16, they may perform all types of jobs on any farm at any time, regardless of whether school is in session.

The Youth Minimum Wage

In 1996, the Fair Labor Standards Act was amended to allow employers to pay employees younger than 20 years old a wage lower than the standard minimum wage for their first 90 consecutive days with the company. This wage may not be lower than $4.25 per hour. Once the 90-day period ends, the employee must receive the federal or state minimum wage, whichever is higher.

It is illegal for an employer to replace a worker older than 20 with a minor simply to save money. Likewise, failing to raise a minor’s wage after he or she reaches his or her ninetieth consecutive day at the company (not 90 days worked, but 90 calendar days from when he or she was hired) and firing an employee once he or she reaches this threshold in order to hire a new employee at the lower rate is a violation of the FLSA and subject to a civil penalty from the United States Department of Labor.