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Illinois legislator wants to strengthen child labor laws amid migrant crisis

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(The Center Square) – A state lawmaker introduced legislation that aims to strengthen Illinois’ child labor laws.

State Sen. Robert Peters’ Senate Bill 3646 addresses children under the age of 15 who obtain a work permit. Anna Koeppel, legislative director at Illinois Department of Labor, said the current law primarily permits employment for 14 and 15 year-olds, as long as it is within allowable work hours and it’s not in hazardous conditions.

“There are some exemptions that allow 12 and 13 year olds to work in specific occupations, like park districts,” said Koeppel. “Younger than that, employment is generally not prohibited other than in specific industries like child acting.”

Peters, D-Chicago, said the goal is to make the current law modern and more clear. The bill defines compensation parameters around vlogging.

“[Illinois’ child labor law] was written 75 years ago … and when you think about the economy and society, it’s just so very different,” said Peters. “The idea of cleaning and clarifying it also just makes it easier for interpretation, particularly for the Department of Labor.”

Peters said the ”funky law” has many different amendments and it makes it difficult for employers to engage in the necessary regulation of protecting children in the workplace.

Iowa and several other states in the U.S. have loosened regulations on child labor in response to a national workforce shortage. In a news conferenceat the Illinois State Capitol Friday, Frances Orenic, the legislative director at the Illinois AFL-CIO, said he supports Peters’ bill.

“Iowa was a big headline we saw in May of 2023, they passed sweeping child labor reforms. Some of those included 14 year olds being allowed to become apprentices in meat packing facilities,” said Orenic. “There were provisions … surrounding children working extended hours in restaurants.”

Iowa’s updated Youth Employment Law allows Iowa employers to apply for a waiver for 16 and 17-year-olds to participate in approved work-based learning or work-related programs involving certain hazardous work activities under certain conditions.

A recent survey of business executives and senior managers showed 58% of respondents found hiring to be “very” or “extremely” challenging. Among the top challenges business executives and senior managers face is “attracting younger talent.”

Peters’ proposed Child Labor Law of 2024 would remove the regulation where children under the age of 16 can’t work in restaurants.

“They shouldn’t be serving alcohol and be behind the bar,” said Koeppel. “We understand many children work in restaurants. And family farms actually have special provision in the law.”

The special provision said children under 12 can’t work at a farm unless it is a family farm, but any child over 10 can work at a farm that isn’t a family farm during school vacations or outside of school hours. Other provisions exempt agricultural education programs.

“There are people out there who want to move our child labor laws in the other direction and weaken them,” said Peters. “We are trying to strengthen them and people take that positively. [For example] you have a kid, you don’t want to have your kid working in that environment [hazardous meat-packing plant] … you want them focused on their schooling or playing with their friends.”

U.S. Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-La, has written letters to officials at the U.S. Departments of Labor and Health and Human Services pointing out the 88% uptick in illegal child labor since 2019, including in “dangerous jobs” such as meat processing.

Republicans have called on the Biden administration to address the border crisis and the migrant children crossing into the U.S.

“This years-long increase in unaccompanied migrant children crossing the southern border under the Biden administration, and the negative incentive for these children to expose themselves to dangerous working conditions is an intolerable tragedy for which we must find an immediate and lasting solution,” wrote Cassidy. “It is clear that the enforcement actions taken so far against violators have not slowed this upward trend in exploitative child labor.”

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