Agriculture can be a hazardous occupation, and adding child workers into the equation can lead to even more dangerous situations. During 2023 alone, Michael Schuls, 16, died while working at a sawmill in Wisconsin, and Duvan Tomas Perez, 16, died after becoming entangled in a conveyor belt he was cleaning at a poultry slaughterhouse in Mississippi.

Over the past few years, interest in amending laws governing child labor within the U.S. has grown among both federal and state policymakers. Reflective of that interest, Congress is currently considering multiple proposals that seek to amend federal child labor laws. Additionally, during the 2022 and 2023 legislative sessions numerous states enacted amendments to their state’s child labor requirements, five of which had an effect on agricultural producers.

Background on Child Labor Laws

Congress passed the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”) in 1938 to improve the “general well-being of workers” in part by prohibiting the employment of minors in oppressive child labor. The FLSA includes some exceptions for agricultural labor, including allowing children fourteen and older to work in non-hazardous agricultural activities outside of school hours and allowing children who are twelve and thirteen to work in non-hazardous agricultural activities with consent from the parent or person standing in the place of the parent. The FLSA then lists eleven hazardous jobs in agriculture that children under sixteen may not perform.  Other jobs are considered hazardous for minors between 16-18 years.  The FLSA is enforced by the Department of Labor (“DoL”).

States may pass their own child labor laws, but the FLSA is seen as the “floor.”  In other words, if a state law is less restrictive than the FLSA, then the FLSA will be the standard that employers must follow. If the state law is more restrictive than the FLSA, then the state law will be the standard that employers must follow. A prior NALC article provides a more in-depth overview of child labor laws and agriculture.

Federal Legislation

Multiple bills have been introduced in Congress in 2023 to amend child labor provisions in the FLSA. This article will introduce a few of the bills proposed this year. Other bills also proposed increasing penalties for violations of federal child labor laws and requiring disclosure of workplace injuries. See H.R. 2388, H.R. 2956, S. 3139, and S. 3142.

Children Don’t Belong on Tobacco Farms Act – On June 12, 2023, Senator Richard Durbin of Illinois, along with three Democratic co-sponsors introduced S. 1921. According to Senator Durbin, “[k]ids as young as 12 can be recruited to work on tobacco farms where they are exposed to serious health risks like nicotine poisoning and other long-term health effects.” The bill would amend the FLSA to prohibit the employment of anyone under eighteen in tobacco related agriculture. The bill was referred to the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions. A companion bill, H.R. 4020, was introduced in the House of Representatives on June 12, 2023 by Representative Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut and two Democratic co-sponsors. H.R. 4020 was referred to the House Committee on Education and the Workforce. Both remain in committee.

CARE Act of 2023 – On June 12, 2023, Representative Raul Ruiz of California introduced H.R. 4046 along with forty-five Democratic co-sponsors. The bill would amend the FLSA to limit the agricultural exceptions in the child labor provisions. Specifically, it would limit the employment of children under the age of eighteen to only those farms owned by their parent(s) or a person standing in the place of the parent(s); and would further prohibit anyone under sixteen from employment that is deemed hazardous or detrimental to the health or well-being of the child by the Secretary of Labor. Additionally, the bill would eliminate the current process of allowing employers to apply for a waiver to temporarily employ children between the ages of ten and twelve as hand harvest laborers. Lastly, the bill would increase penalties for employers that violate the child labor provisions and impose additional injury reporting requirements on employers. The bill was referred to the House Committee on Education and the Workforce.

TEENS Act – On August 25, 2023, Representative Dusty Johnson of South Dakota, along with three Republican co-sponsors introduced H.R. 5274. The bill would outline working hours during the school year- specifically, it would permit children between fourteen and sixteen to work during the hours of 7:00 am to 9:00 p.m. The bill would also limit those children to working twenty four hours in a week.  The bill was referred to the House Committee on Education and the Workforce.

State Legislation

Arkansas – On March 6, 2023, Governor Sanders signed H.B. 1410 into law. The new law revises Arkansas child labor laws by removing the requirement that children under the age of sixteen must obtain employment certificates to work in the state. By removing this provision, Arkansas will no longer require employers to obtain a work permit from the Arkansas Department of Labor confirming permission of the parent/guardian, outlining the expected hours the child would work and verifying the minor’s age as a precursor to employment. This law went into effect on July 30, 2023.

Iowa – On May 26, 2023, Governor Reynolds signed SF 542 into law, which went into effect on July 1, 2023.  In part, the new law extends the hours children under sixteen may work. Children under the age of sixteen may now work from 7:00 pm to 9:00 pm during the school year and from 9:00 pm to 11:00 from June 1st to Labor Day.  Further, and relevant to agriculture, it adds an allowance for children age fourteen and older to “work in the production of seed to remove off-type plants and corn tassels” and hand-pollinate plants from June 1st through Labor Day.

It is worth noting that several Democratic Senators sent a letter to the U.S. DoL, questioning whether the new law violated the FLSA “floor” to child labor protections. The DoL, in response, indicated that the changes were inconsistent with federal child labor laws. While this letter does not invalidate the Iowa law, it indicates DoL’s belief that employers who follow some of the new Iowa provisions may still be held responsible for FLSA violations, since states cannot eliminate a federal requirement by simply passing a less protective state law.

New Hampshire – On June 22, 2022, Governor Sununu signed SB 345 into law, which went into effect immediately. The law increases the number of hours that children who are sixteen or seventeen and in school may work, raising the limit from thirty hours to thirty-five hours.

New Jersey – On July 5, 2022, Governor Murphy signed A4222 into law. The law expands working hours for fourteen- and fifteen-year-old children by allowing them to work no more than three hours on a school day or eight hours on a non-school day. Children of these ages may only work for up to eighteen hours in a school week. The law also increases the number of hours a minor can work during summer break. Minors between the ages of fourteen and fifteen may work up to forty hours per week between the minor’s last day of school and Labor Day. Minors between the ages of sixteen and eighteen may work up to ten hours per day or fifty hours per week between the minor’s last day of school and Labor Day. Lastly, the new law requires the New Jersey Department of Labor and Workforce Development send a notification to a minor’s caregiver when the minor registers to work in the state. The caregiver has the opportunity to approve or reject the minor’s registration. Most provisions of the new law went into effect on June 1, 2023.

North Dakota – On April 29, 2023, Governor Burgum signed SB 2170 into law. The law allows children sixteen and older, who are part of a registered apprenticeship program or a student-learner of an approved education program to work in a hazardous occupation. A parental signature is required for a minor to participate in the apprenticeship or approved education program. The law went into effect on August 1, 2023. The North Dakota registered apprenticeship program is a partnership with the U.S. DoL, which is in contrast to the internship, apprenticeship, and student learner provision referenced in the DoL response to the Iowa law discussed above.

Numerous other state legislatures introduced bills in the last few years to amend child labor provisions.  For example, SF 1102 was introduced in the Minnesota Senate in 2023, and proposed expanding the time frame children under sixteen may work to include the hours between 6:30 am to 9:00 pm on a day before a school day, and 6:30 am to 11:00 pm on a day before a non-school day. HB 1258 was introduced in the Illinois House of Representatives in 2023, and would have decreased the number of hours children under sixteen may work in a week. HB 876 was introduced in the Virginia House of Delegates in 2022, which would have prohibited children under eighteen from working in direct contact with tobacco plants or dried tobacco leaves unless the farm was owned by the child’s parents, grandparents, or legal guardian or the parent or legal guardian has consented to the child working with tobacco plants.


In addition to legislative interest, over the last few years there has been an increase in interest in investigating child labor violations. In February 2023, the Department of Labor and Health and Human Services created the Task Force to Combat Child Labor Exploitations.

One recent investigation of the task force focused on Packers Sanitation Services, Inc., a firm providing cleaning services to slaughterhouses and meatpacking facilities nationwide.  The Department of Labor alleged that the company violated federal child labor laws by allowing over one hundred children between 13 and 17 years old to work overnight shifts and use hazardous chemicals to clean meat processing equipment- a hazardous occupation under the FLSA.  As part of a settlement, the company was ordered to pay $1.5 million and change its hiring and compliance practices.

In another investigation, the DoL alleged that a poultry processor doing business as The Exclusive Poultry Inc. violated federal child labor laws by employing children as young as fourteen to debone poultry, a hazardous occupation. Further allegations were made that child employees worked more hours than allowed by FLSA.  As part of a settlement agreement, the company was ordered to pay $3.8 million, including back wages, damages and civil penalties.  They also agreed to change their hiring and compliance practices, as overseen by a third party monitor.

This task force is part of a continuing effort by the Biden administration to impose consequences on employers for child labor violations.  According to the DoL,

During federal fiscal year 2023, which ended on Sept. 30, 2023, the division concluded 955 investigations that found child labor violations, holding more employers accountable for such violations than in any year in the last 15 years. We also found almost 5,800 kids employed in violation of the law, an 88% increase in the number of children employed in violation since 2019. Finally, we assessed more than $8 million in penalties for child labor violations, an 83% increase compared to last year.

Given the very public nature of these allegations and enforcement actions, it is unlikely that the interest in child labor laws will disappear.  It is more probable that they will instead increase the conversation as to the appropriate protections, requirements and penalties for violations, as indicated in future legislative proposals.


To read the Fair Labor Standards Act, click here.

To read the prior NALC article discussing child labor laws, click here.

For more NALC labor resources, click here.