What Are Child Labor Laws?

Child labor laws are federal and state mandates meant to protect minors (people under the age of 18) in the workplace. They are applicable to every company in the United States and thus important for all HR representatives to be familiar with.

Child labor laws vary by state, industry, and age of the child. Read on to learn more about the purpose of child labor laws and how they might apply to your business.

Why Are Child Labor Laws Important?

Here are some of the biggest reasons the US government instituted child labor laws.

  • Keep minors away from dangerous environments. Some jobs and industries are too dangerous for children to be working in, such as construction, mining, law enforcement, or manufacturing. Workplace hazards that put minors at risk could cause physical illness or injury or emotional harm.
  • Regulate when minors can and can’t work. Protective laws vary widely, but all establish restrictions and requirements for minors. For instance, a child under 12 years of age may not work on a large hazardous farm, but a child of 16 can.
  • Mandate safeguards in existing work environments. Child labor laws not only determine whether a minor can work, but they also protect minors as they work. There are special safeguards required for minors in certain jobs that aren’t required for adults. Parental consent is one example, and is required for some ages and industries.
  • Keep minors from working too early and too late. In most situations, child labor laws prohibit minors from working too early in the morning and too late at night. Regular school hours during the day are also often mandated for child workers.

Child Labor Laws HR Should Know About

Here are some brief summaries of what child labor laws look like for different age groups in agricultural and non-agricultural jobs. Visit this Department of Labor page for more information.

These are federal laws only. Remember that state laws may apply as well.

Agricultural Jobs

  • Younger than 12 years. Minors younger than 12 cannot work within school hours, in hazardous jobs, or on larger farms. If they work on a small farm, it must be owned or operated by the minor’s parent and exempt from federal minimum wage provisions. The minor must have parental consent.
  • 12 or 13 years old. Minors 12 or 13 years old cannot work during school hours, in hazardous jobs, or on larger farms. Small farms must employ the minor’s parent(s) or have parental consent.
  • 14 or 15 years old. Minors 14 or 15 years old cannot work within school hours or in hazardous jobs.
  • 16 years or older. Minors 16 years or older can work on any farm at any time.

Children of any age may work at any time in any job on a farm owned or operated by their parent (or person standing in place of their parent). “Hazardous” work for agricultural jobs is defined by the Secretary of Labor.

Non-Agricultural Jobs

  • Younger than 14 years. Minors younger than 14 cannot work during school hours and can only do the following jobs: deliver newspapers; babysit irregularly; act in TV, radio, or theater; gather evergreens to make wreaths; or work in a non-hazardous business owned entirely by the minor’s parents.
  • 14 or 15 years old. Minors 14 or 15 years old cannot work during school hours or in manufacturing or hazardous jobs. Outside of school hours, there are several limits to the number of hours minors can work per day and per week. Some allowed jobs are retail occupations, computer programming, teaching, acting, food service, and lifeguard duty.
  • 16 or 17 years old. 16 and 17 year olds can work any hours or time of day. They are not allowed to work hazardous jobs.
  • 18 years or older. 18-year-olds can work on any job at any time.

“Hazardous” work for non-agricultural jobs is defined by the US Department of Labor.

How Can Companies Ensure They Comply With Child Labor Laws?

If you’re thinking about employing minors, consider the following tips.

Explore the Department of Labor’s Website

The US Department of Labor has posted a multitude of materials on their website for employers to use. Visit the site and become familiar with everything they teach.

Consult Your Legal Team

Child labor laws are not something to be messed around with; consequences for violations can include financial penalty and criminal charges. You should always bring in the big guns and get legal guidance. Turn to your internal legal team or pay outside counsel to ensure all your bases are covered.

Evaluate the Jobs in Consideration

Look at the jobs you’re considering employing minors for and conduct an in-depth job analysis. Review job descriptions and make changes as needed. Consider all physical requirements and potential hazards. Compare your findings with the Department of Labor’s list of hazardous jobs.

Reevaluate Regularly

Jobs evolve over time, whether you mean for them to or not. Keep an eye on things by conducting regular job analyses on the jobs minors are working in. Make any changes necessary to keep things compliant.

Play on the Safe Side

When in doubt, err on the side of caution. Child labor law violations come with sharp fees and worse, a nasty reputation. Make sure your policies and culture offer rock-solid protections for your employed minors.