What Are America's Child Labor Laws?


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It is often a coming of age event: getting that first job, usually to pay for something irresponsible like a sports car or a video game. But how old does one have to be to start working? How many hours can they work every day and week? Who gets to control the money (i.e., the child or the parents)?

American child labor laws came into effect to prevent the dangerous and exploitative conditions many children faced at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century. U.S. factories were exploding with a need for labor, and children could often be used and paid lower wages than adults. The primary source of American child labor laws can be found in the Fair Labor Standards Act.

According to the Fair Labor Standards Act, for non-agricultural jobs, children under the age of 12 may not be employed at all except under certain extraordinary circumstances (like child actors). Meanwhile, children between the ages of 12 and 16 can be employed in certain occupations for a limited number of hours, while children between the ages of 16 and 18 can work for unlimited hours in non-hazardous occupations. There are a number of exceptions to these rules, of course, such as employment by parents, newspaper delivery, and the aforementioned child actors. Agricultural employment for children, on the other hand, is much more lenient, where children as young as 12 may be employed for an unlimited number of hours outside of school hours if the parents give their permission.

There are also a number of state laws that add to these restrictions. Most states have their own laws that mirror the federal regulations and add to them. Generally, the more stringent law trumps the more relaxed one when it comes to child labor laws.

While child labor is tightly regulated in the United States, there are still concerns about underage workers. Many focus on the lax standards for children in agricultural positions. Many children who work in agricultural professions fail to complete high school, are often exposed to dangerous pesticides, and experience hazards that lead to a five times greater rate of fatalities than other minors their age who work. Similarly, they are often required to work excessively long hours, often more than 10 hours a day, which is in addition to hours spent in school.

Child actors are another area of concern for many watch groups. While one of the most tightly regulated classes of child workers, state laws often allow the parents to control their children's earnings. This can lead to horrible disputes, especially during divorces or other family disagreements.

If you are an employer considering hiring a child worker, you may wish to consult with a local attorney for advice on how best to manage that employee. You can find a list of attorneys in your area, including those who focus their practices on employment law, by visiting the Law Firms page on our website.

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Disclaimer: While every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this publication, it is not intended to provide legal advice as individual situations will differ and should be discussed with an expert and/or lawyer.

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