Child Labor Law

What is Child Labor Law

Although I am sure many older teens cringe at the label, the laws which govern the employment of anybody under the age of eighteen fall into the category of child labor law. These laws are meant to shield minors from exposure to dangerous occupations, while recognizing that as kids and teens get older they are capable of working longer hours or in more challenging employment.

Child labor laws vary between jurisdictions, often quite significantly. They may have different rules as to minimum ages for employment, hours that can be worked, and required permits. The following article presents an overview of typical child labor law rules. For more specific information, please check with the government office in your jurisdiction which regulates child labor. Often, they will have websites, brochures, or posters which summarize the governing rules and restrictions.

What's a Work Permit?

In many jurisdictions, before a minor can obtain employment the minor must produce a work permit, usually issued by the school the minor attends. Generally speaking, the purpose of this requirement is to ensure that employment doesn't interfere with school performance, and that kids who are having trouble in school aren't being overtaxed by their employment. A few jurisdictions require a physical examination before a work permit can be issued. Some jurisdictions have never required work permits. Other jurisdictions, finding that schools don't actually exercise any real oversight or fear that troubled students will drop out if denied the opportunity for employment, have dropped the requirement of work permits.

Restrictions on Older Teens (Ages 16 - 17)

Older teens face the fewest workplace restrictions. Depending upon where they live, they may find that they are limited in the number of hours they can work during the school year, and may also be subject to a limit on how late they can work, often requiring them to be off work no later than 11 PM. Older teens are also limited in their ability to hold jobs considered hazardous, or to operate potentially dangerous machinery. This can include not only the obvious, such as the operation of heavy construction equipment or employment in mining or manufacturing, but also machines that seem more mundane, such as delicatessen meat slicers. (When I managed a delicatessen back when I was in college, my teenaged employees would sometimes ask if they could operate some of the restricted equipment if they had permission from their parents. Under the law, the answer is "no".)

Most jurisdictions require that minor employees of any age be given periodic breaks, depending upon the length of their shift. Although the specific requirements will vary, it is not atypical for the law to require a break of at least fifteen minutes for any shift worked, and for a minimum half hour uninterrupted break for any shift more than four hours in length. Where shift length exceeds four hours, a second break may be mandated. There may be apprenticeship positions open to older teens, which provide for some level of exemption from the legally imposed work restrictions. Please note, though, that it is not enough to simply call a job an "apprenticeship" to escape the application of labor law.

Restrictions on Teens (Aged 14-15)

Teens aged fourteen and fifteen are usually permitted to hold a significant range of jobs considered to be non-dangerous in nature. They are typically limited in the number of hours they can work, and the limits on their hours extend year-round, although they are usually permitted to work more hours during the school break periods than when school is in session. Some states will not let teens below the age of sixteen work in places where alcohol is being served. Typically, their work shifts must end no later than 7:00 PM during the school year and 9:00 PM in the summer. Break rules are typically the same as those described for older teens.

Teens of this age often work in grocery and retail stores, offices, movie theaters, baseball and amusement parks, or at gas stations. However, they typically cannot operate any machinery beyond that which would ordinarily be found in an office setting (e.g., fax machines and photocopiers). Teens of this age can usually work on farms outside of school hours, although parental permission may be required.

Restrictions on Younger Teens & Children (Aged 13 or younger)

Typical jobs permitted to kids aged thirteen or younger include:

  • Newspaper delivery routes;
  • Baby-sitting;
  • Working as a golf caddy (usually with some restrictions);
  • Mowing lawns and shoveling sidewalks;
  • Employment as an actor or performer in movies, television, on stage, or radio;
  • Employment in a business solely owned or operated by their parents;
  • Employment on a farm owned or operated by their parents.

Most of these jobs are in the capacity of an independent contractor, a status that frees the employer from minimum wage laws and also permits employment without any workers' compensation coverage. Some jobs which might not otherwise qualify as independent contractor positions, such as babysitting, are typically exempted from minimum wage laws. In some agricultural areas, children aged ten and eleven may be permitted to work outside of school hours to assist with agricultural harvest - typically picking fruits and vegetables.

Please note the prior emphasis on the fact that many jobs available to younger teens don't carry workers' compensation coverage. As a parent, before you consent to your child's employment, you may wish to explore the safety of the child's job (even if it sounds like it will be safe) by visiting the workplace or touring the proposed newspaper route, and make sure that your family has appropriate private insurance coverage.

Special Rules for Agriculture

In the United States, and in most other agricultural nations with child labor laws, members of a farmer’s immediate family who live with the farmer and are employed by the farmer in agriculture are exempt from nearly all child labor regulations. While children typically are not permitted to work in their parents' dangerous businesses, such as mining or manufacturing facilities, before the age of sixteen, there is a long-standing exception for working on your parents' farm. The parents are still expected to follow other laws, such as those requiring school attendance.


The federal minimum wage applies to work by minors. Some employers try to circumvent these wage rules. Unfortunately, in the agricultural sector, some employers manage to impose long and onerous workloads on child laborers, while offering compensation based upon productivity - compensation that falls far short of minimum wage. There is typically far more oversight of workplace violations in an urban setting than in an agricultural setting, and the word "exploitation" can be too mild for what happens with the children of some migrant farm workers. As noted above, there may be exceptions to minimum wage laws, particularly for younger kids.

"Whose Earnings Are They?"

In many jurisdictions the earnings of a child belong to the parent. This results from an old common law rule that entitles parents to the proceeds of their children's labor. Some states have modified the rule in response to abuses. California, for example, created a number of laws meant to protect the earnings of children from their parents, after the parents of some child movie stars spent all of their money and left them destitute as adults.

Employers' Duties

Typically, employers are supposed to keep records of the ages of their minor workers, and where work permits are required, they must keep copies of the permits on file. If the minor is exempted from the law under an apprenticeship program, or for any other reason, the employer is expected to keep documentation of the exemption on file. Employers are also expected to be familiar with the type of workplace tasks forbidden to minors, and can face significant fines and penalties for ignoring those restrictions - something that often occurs after a workplace injury to a minor becomes known to legal authorities. As all workers' compensation claims are processed through the state, that is often inevitable following an injury to a minor which requires medical attention.

Parents' Rights

Typically, parents must consent to the employment of children below the age of fourteen. Parental consent may also be required for older teens, but often permission will be implied in the absence of objection. As noted above, in many jurisdictions a child's earnings are considered to be the property of a parent. If this is the case, a parent who does not want his or her child to hold a job may be able to require the employer to issue paychecks to the parent instead of to the child. However, most employers are happy to work with parents to find a schedule that is not too taxing on a teen, and it is often a good experience for a teen to hold a job.

I once had a discussion with my brother, in which he lamented that he could not travel back in time and pay himself not to work over his high school summers. In retrospect, he could not believe how many days of his life he sacrificed for what now seems like an unbelievably small amount of money. At the same time, he recognized that he learned a lot of valuable life lessons from holding a job, and that he probably would have gotten into a great deal of trouble had he not been sticking to a work schedule. I am several years older than my brother, and for many of those years he worked under my supervision. I had the pleasure of seeing him develop a strong work ethic, and become an outstanding worker. While I can certainly sympathize with the desire to recapture lost moments of youth, on the whole I think he got a pretty good deal.

Copyright © 2003 Aaron Larson, All rights reserved. No portion of this article may be reproduced without the express written permission of the copyright holder. If you use a quotation, excerpt or paraphrase of this article, except as otherwise authorized in writing by the author of the article you must cite this article as a source for your work and include a link back to the original article from any online materials that incorporate or are derived from the content of this article.

This article was first published on Aug 1, 2003, and was last reviewed or amended on Sep 16, 2014.