Florida legislature proposes dangerous rollback of child labor protections: At least 16 states have introduced bills putting children at risk

Last week, Florida became at least the 16th state to introduce legislation rolling back child labor protections in the past two years, and the 13th state to introduce such legislation in 2023. Florida’s bill proposes eliminating all guidelines on hours employers can schedule youth ages 16 or 17 to work, allowing employers to schedule teens to work unlimited hours per day or per week—including overnight shifts on school days. The bill bears similarity to child labor legislation heavily backed in other states by the Foundation for Government Accountability (FGA)—a right-wing dark money group based in Florida—and its lobbying arm Opportunity Solutions Project.

At a time when violations of child labor laws are on the rise nationally—and amid reports of serious violations in Florida—lawmakers must act to strengthen standards, not erode existing minimal standards designed to keep youth safe at work and guarantee all children equal access to education.

Florida proposal threatens a century of progress on improving health, education, and economic outcomes for youth

Florida’s child labor bill proposes rolling back longstanding state standards adopted more than a century ago in response to widespread exploitation of children. Prior to the law’s passage in 1913, Florida children as young as five and six years old were employed in dangerous work in agriculture, seafood processing, canning, and the cigar industry. While Florida’s first child labor law contained many loopholes, was underenforced due to staffing constraints, and imposed only limited penalties, it established critical initial protections against employer exploitation of children. Specifically, it barred factories from hiring children younger than 14, limited work hours for youth under 16, and prohibited all employers from scheduling minors for night shifts.

Since 1913, Florida’s child labor law has been amended numerous times to expand protections for working youth. Currently, Florida employers cannot schedule 16- and 17-year-olds to work more than eight hours per day on school nights or more than 30 hours a week while school is in session. Newly proposed legislation would allow employers to schedule teens 16 and older for unlimited hours, including overnight shifts during the school year.

In addition to wiping out guidelines on daily or weekly work hours for 16- and 17-year-olds, the bill also includes a confusing change to other sections of state law intended to prevent excessive hours of work for teens. Current Florida law states 14- and 15-year-olds “shall not” be employed before 7 a.m. or after 7 p.m. or for more than 15 hours per week during the school year or three hours per day on school days, and that teens 17 or younger “shall not” be employed more than six consecutive days per week or more than four hours with a 30-minute meal period. However, the proposed bill states employers “may not” (rather than “shall not”) exceed these limits. While the intent and legal implications of this proposed language change are at this point unclear, the possibility that bill authors intend to make standards on work hours for the youngest teens “optional” for employers to follow is especially alarming.

The Florida bill also takes a step beyond weakening state law with a proposal to ban Florida localities from adopting any ordinance regulating “the presence of minors in public places and establishments” that is more stringent than state curfew laws, presumably as a preemptive measure barring local governments from regulating child labor in the future absence of state guidelines. This type of aggressive state preemption has become an increasingly common tactic in broader corporate campaigns to suppress worker rights, and is a longstanding tool of state interference in local democracy rooted in white supremacy in the South.

Proposals to extend teens’ work hours fly in the face of decades of research documenting that excessive work hours jeopardize teen health, development, and safety on the job. Because of the association between fatigue and both car accidents and workplace injuries, allowing teens to work unlimited hours is correlated with an increased risk of injuries to teens on the job site and in transit to or from work. These proposals also threaten the futures of young people, as youth who drop out of school to work go on to have the lowest earnings and highest unemployment rates of all workers as adults.

Alongside free public education and compulsory attendance laws, child labor protections have played a central role in achieving steady increases in high school completion rates over the past century. Florida has made especially significant progress on increasing high school completion rates in recent decades, with graduation rates increasing from 52% in 1998–99 to 90.1% in 2020–21. In this context, state legislative attempts to roll back child labor laws—coupled with the state legislature’s relentless attacks on public education—threaten to undo the progress Florida has made on its constitutional mandate to provide high-quality, equitable public education to all young people.

At a moment when child labor violations are on the rise, proposed Florida legislation expands on a dangerous national trend

Nationally, the number of minors employed in violation of child labor laws in fiscal year (FY) 2022 was 37% higher than FY2021 and 283% higher than FY2015 (see Figure A). The number of minors employed in violation of hazardous occupations orders increased 26% over FY2021 and 94% over FY2015.

Child labor violations are on the rise: Minors employed in violation of child labor laws and hazardous occupation orders, fiscal years 2015–2022

Year Minors employed in violation of child labor laws Minors employed in violation of hazardous occupation orders
FY 2015 1,012 355
FY 2016 1,756 486
FY 2017 1,609 491
FY 2018 2,299 596
FY 2019 3,073 544
FY 2020 3,395 633
FY 2021 2,819 545
FY 2022 3,876 688
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