Arkansas loosens and strengthens child labor laws amid national concerns

by Jeff Della Rosa ([email protected]) 2,914 views 

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Child labor laws are now simultaneously loosened and enhanced in Arkansas amid a rise in violations of the laws across the country and states looking to weaken them.

According to the Economic Policy Institute, the number of children employed violating child labor laws in the United States rose by 37% from 2,819 in 2021 to 3,876 in 2022. Meanwhile, at least 14 states have considered or weakened child labor protections.

Earlier this year, Arkansas received national media attention after state legislators approved a new state law that’s removed a more than 100-year-old requirement for 14- and 15-year-olds seeking employment. Later, a lesser-known law increased civil penalties and established felony charges for child labor law violators. Recently, area attorneys, a legal scholar and a child advocate provided advice on the changes.

The Youth Hiring Act, or Act 195, took effect on July 31. The law removed the work permit requirement for 14- and 15-year-olds. Previously, state law required employers to receive a permit from the Arkansas Department of Labor and Licensing before the age group could start work in Arkansas.

According to the state agency, 2,227 permits were issued to employers over the past year, and 12,242 have been issued since 2016. The permits or certificates are assigned to employers, not employees. If an employee changed employers, the new employer would’ve been required to have its own permit for the employee.

Between March 6 and 8, multiple national outlets, including Bloomberg, Newsweek and The Washington Post, reported on the Arkansas law change amid accounts of employers hiring children illegally. Reports show federal regulators discovered more than 100 children ages 13 to 17 were hired to clean meatpacking plants in eight states, including Arkansas. The employer paid a $1.5 million civil penalty. Citing the U.S. Department of Labor, Newsweek reported that employers violating child labor laws were assessed nearly $3.4 million in civil penalties in 2021.

On March 9, Senate Bill 390 was introduced to enhance civil penalties and create criminal penalties for those violating child labor laws in Arkansas. Sen. Clint Penzo, R-Springdale, and Rep. Rebecca Burkes, R-Springdale, were the sponsors. Penzo and Burkes also sponsored House Bill 1410, which became Act 195 on March 6. SB 390 became Act 687 on April 11. It also went into effect on July 31.

“Those who violate child labor laws and exploit minors need to be stopped,” Burkes said. “Increasing civil penalties and creating criminal penalties for violating child labor laws creates better tools to do this.”

Katie Campbell, partner at Friday, Eldredge & Clark, said recent national media attention on loosening child labor laws in multiple states might lead to a short-term spotlight being placed on Arkansas employers.

“We seem to be a little bit at the forefront on this issue,” Campbell said. “So I think there’s a risk of added attention from the federal Department of Labor who can and does often come in and do these types of audits. I represent clients doing that all the time, so one of the things they do look for is child labor law compliance.”

She said the new law only impacts 14- and 15-year-olds because the state prohibits those under 14 from working unless employed by a parent or guardian. Campbell noted that along with eliminating the work permit requirement, the state no longer must verify the age of the young workers.

“Those 14- and 15-year-olds can work without a work permit and really subject only to their parent’s consent,” she said. “It does loosen up those requirements pretty significantly.”

Campbell said existing federal and state child labor laws are still in effect, which might get lost in the headlines. Those under 16 can’t work in dangerous positions and are restricted on the times of day and the number of hours per week they can work.

She said federal law restricts the workers from working in several industries, such as coal mining, heavy machinery, and meat and poultry. Existing work restrictions might prevent large area employers, such as those in transportation or poultry industries, to take advantage of the law change eliminating the work permit requirement.

Campbell also highlighted the lesser-known Act 687 that increased penalties for child labor law violations to between $100 and $5,000 per violation, from between $50 and $1,000. Civil penalties can be assessed for violations looking back three years instead of two. Those knowingly violating child labor laws face misdemeanor charges, and repeat offenders could be charged with a felony.

“There’s this added complexity and added risk factor, which is out there,” she said. “There are certainly some things employers need to be cautious about.”

Tim Hutchinson Jr., partner at RMP LLP, said employers should still receive the parent’s signed, written consent for the employed child and keep this in the employee’s file. Parental consent was included in the work permit or certificate that’s no longer required because of Act 195.

“As intended, it was just designed to remove … what some probably feel as an unnecessary delay and burden for someone under age 16 who wants to work to be able to work,” Hutchinson said. “Now that that certificate requirement is gone, I think there’s a legitimate question as to whether or not parental consent is still required. I think arguments could be made on both sides of that.

“Practically speaking, most won’t go to work without their parent’s consent. They can’t even drive,” he explained. “I don’t know if it changes much.”

Andrew Dixon, attorney at Quattlebaum, Grooms & Tull PLLC, said removing the work permit requirement will likely mean young employees can start work more quickly. Dixon also said employers should consider receiving parental consent and verifying employee age “to ensure they’re not hiring minors too young to work.”

He added that “each day a minor is unlawfully employed constitutes a separate violation, and these penalties apply even when an employer unknowingly violates the law.”

Burkes said employers still must verify age because the federal I-9 form requires employees to show age verification documents.

“I believe that parents and guardians are in the best position to decide if it is in the interest of a teenager to have a job – not the government,” Burkes said. “Many states do not require a work permit.”

Annie Smith, a law professor at the University of Arkansas, said the work permit requirement that Act 195 eliminated had been in place in Arkansas since 1915. Unlike the I-9, the work permit required parental consent, information to be submitted to the state agency enforcing child labor laws, and hours and types of work the employee will complete, said Smith, adding that the permit also provided employers with information on relevant laws and an opportunity to receive state feedback if a child labor violation was about to happen.

Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families has been against the bill that became Act 195 since February, when introduced during the legislative session.

Laura Kellams, the Northwest Arkansas director for the organization, said the work permit ensured parents knew their child was taking a job and the work hours restrictions. Without the permit requirement, she said the process to receive parental consent is no longer in place.

She noted that the one-page permit application was free, and the state processed it within two or three days. It might have taken one more day during the summer when more children seek jobs.

Kellams added that the organization supports young people working to learn what jobs are like. It also supports Act 687.

Smith explained the challenges to enforcing Act 687, which had bipartisan support.

“Our state Department of Labor and Licensing currently lacks sufficient investigation resources to really do proactive investigations and identify when child labor is happening,” Smith said. “Without meaningful … protections in place for employees to come forward and report suspected child labor violations, it’s hard to imagine how these cases will come forward unless there’s something tragic like there’s been recently in Wisconsin and Mississippi with deaths of young people working.”