Update (3/7): Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders has signed the bill into law.
Original story: Business leaders and advocates for children worry a labor law that passed this week in the state House and Senate will lead to increased child exploitation, poorer academic performance and weaken government oversight of companies that violate laws barring minors from working long hours or in dangerous conditions.
The Senate on Thursday passed House Bill 1410, which eliminates a work permit requirement for kids under the age of 16. The bill now awaits Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders' signature.
Sponsors of HB1410 — Rep. Rebecca Burkes, R-Lowell, and Sen. Clint Penzo, R-Springdale — said it gives families more freedom to choose where their children work while removing cumbersome government oversight. State and federal labor laws would still apply, they said, adding that if a company is going to violate the law, it will do so, work permit or not. Federal child labor laws do not require work permits.
Business leaders said they are not so sure. “We just think this is a solution looking for a problem,” Randy Zook, Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce president and CEO, said.
The Senate approved HB1410 against the backdrop of a $1.5 million fine the U.S. Department of Labor slapped on a slaughterhouse cleaning service that illegally employed at least 102 children in hazardous conditions in more than a dozen meat processing plants, including two in Arkansas.
Meanwhile, the Labor Department released new data at the end of February indicating cases of employer child exploitation have dramatically increased in recent years. Since 2018, the agency said it had seen a 69% uptick in children being employed illegally.
The Arkansas work permit, which is obtained from the state’s Labor Department, requires children who are 14 or 15 to provide proof of age, permission from a parent or guardian and employer details, including a job description, work schedule, company address and the signature of an owner or manager of the business.
In 2021, the state’s Department of Labor and Licensing issued 1,849 permits. There were about 2,700 issued in 2022, according to data Arkansas Business received from a public records request to the agency. For those two years, 67 employment certificates were denied, agency data revealed.
The data showed most work permit requests were for jobs in the food service industry. Other popular jobs were in retail and hospitality. Some outliers included agriculture, construction and janitorial positions. On average, it takes three to five days to process an application.
The Arkansas Division of Labor & Licensing “supports the bill and agrees that it is an arbitrary burden on parents to get permission from the government for their child to get a job,” Steven Guntharp, the Arkansas Labor Department’s chief of staff, said via email to Arkansas Business. “All child labor laws will still apply, and we expect businesses to comply just as they are required to do now.”
Guntharp said without the work permits, the agency would have no way of knowing where kids are working. “We would not know,” he said via email.
Work permits help the agency to “make sure all rules are being followed as far as child labor law,” Guntharp said during a Wednesday hearing on the bill.
“We make sure all rules are being followed as far as child labor law, and we verify with the employer that everything is accurate and correct, and the child is eligible for work as long as they are under that certain criteria,” Guntharp said.
He further clarified in an email to Arkansas Business Friday. "The onus has always been and, after the passage of HB1410, will continue to be, on the employer to understand and comply with all child labor laws."
"The removal of this permit does not change DLL's authority in the investigation of child labor complaints," Guntharp said. "It only eliminates a state government verification process that employers know and understand child labor laws - laws they are required to know regardless."
Arkansas is one of a handful of states that are looking to relax child labor restrictions. Iowa and Minnesota also have bills that would loosen various rules.
Burkes, the sponsor, said the bill was not backed by a specific sector. Rather the idea came from research from the Foundation for Government Accountability, a conservative think tank in Florida.
A 2022 FGA research paper, “How States Can Streamline the Hiring Process for Teenage Workers and Restore Decision-Making to Parents,” said teenagers are crucial to help with national labor shortages. It said that encouraging youth to work engenders maturity and responsibility.
“Working a part-time job during high school is an opportunity that every American teenager should be afforded,” the FGA paper said. “Teenagers are a critical source of labor for businesses struggling to find help.”
Exploitation and education
Opponents to HB1410 said they are concerned about the possibility of more exploitative labor practices, arguing the bill removes a safeguard that gives parents and the state labor department oversight of where children are working.
A provision in the bill said children under 16 are no longer required to verify proof of their age “through an employment certificate as a condition of employment.”
“To me, this is about the onus on the employer,” Laura Kellams, Arkansas Advocates for Children & Families northwest Arkansas director, said. “It is not what the government is doing with the paper. This is about an employer’s obligation to verify the child’s age and to show on paper that they did. Otherwise, there could be deniability [that] they ever knew how old the child was.”
“It is important for the employer to go through the process,” Kellams said.
Burkes, one of the bill’s sponsors, said companies would verify a teenager’s age via tax forms and identification any employee has to submit when starting a new job.
“All employees must complete an I-9 and show forms of identification with their date of birth to the employer,” Burkes said. “No employer could legally hire an employee without asking for this documentation, which includes the age of the employee.”
Supporters said the bill encourages children to work instead of being glued to screens all day. It helps young people become productive citizens, legislators who voted for the legislation said.
“I can’t stand here and tell you there won’t be something happen,” Sen. Terry Rice, R-Waldron, said during Thursday’s Senate vote. “But I can tell you this [will encourage] a lot more good for youth. Look at violence, look at vagrancies, look at all the stuff going on with youth. For God sake, let’s do some stuff for our youth.”
Zook said he recognizes the importance of kids developing a good work ethic. But lessons learned in the workplace, he said, could come at the expense of lessons learned in the classroom.
"The primary thing kids that age need to be focused on is graduating from high school," he said. "We are afraid this will encourage kids who are under 16 to pursue more work time than school time. We know this happened during [the pandemic]. We are concerned a lot of them will fail to graduate from high school."
The teenage unemployment rate from May-July 2021 was under 10%, lower than before the pandemic, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics said in an August 2021 survey.
Debate over the bill before it was passed in the Senate Thursday lasted nearly 45 minutes. HB1410 passed 24-9, with one member voting present and one leave.
Sen. Clint Penzo, R-Springdale, also a sponsor of the bill, called the “Youth Hiring Act of 2023,” said he is crafting more legislation that would create harsher criminal penalties against companies that abuse children in the workplace.
“There are no criminal penalties in Arkansas for bad actors,” Penzo said. “Coming back with a bill to correct that is where I think our focus needs to be to protect kids from being taken advantage of.”
Sen. Fred Love, D-Little Rock, questioned whether the law would enable kids to work without parents’ permission.
“I would say that a child today could forgo a parent’s signature on this form and gain employment,” Penzo said. “I am sure a kid could be creative and find a way to get around the bank accounts, filling out an I-9.”
Penzo added: “I am sure there is a scenario out there where a kid could also slip out and work for a drug dealer, too. There are all kinds of scenarios and rabbit holes we could run down.”
Sen. Linda Chesterfield, D-Little Rock, said her concern is that the legislation is “sending messages that it is OK to have child labor.”
“The reason child labor laws were put into effect in 1938 is because children were habitually being used, sometimes by their own parents, to work long hours in unsafe conditions,” Chesterfield said. “I don’t want Arkansas to be one of those states that has gone and turned its back on one little piece of paper that could make a difference on how we utilize our children properly.”