Child Labor Law

Although many older teens may cringe at the label, the laws that govern the employment of anybody under the age of eighteen fall into the category of child labor law. For reasons of health, safety and public policy, minors are subject to job restrictions that do not apply to adults.

What is Child Labor Law

Child labor laws are designed to shield minors from exposure to dangerous occupations, while recognizing that as teenagers get older they are capable of working longer hours or in more challenging employment.

Child labor laws vary between states, often quite significantly. States may have different rules as to minimum ages for employment, the maximum number of hours that can be worked by a minor, hours during which minor employees are not permitted to work, and when a minor must obtain a work permit before starting a job.

This article provides a general overview of child labor law rules but it is important to check for specific state laws and restrictions before hiring a minor. Most states provide websites, brochures, or posters that summarize labor laws, 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. The principal purpose of the work permit requirement is to ensure that employment doesn't interfere with school performance, and that minors who are having trouble in school aren't being overtaxed by the demands of a job.

A few states require a physical examination before a work permit may be issued. Some states have never required work permits. Other states, having concluded 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 for work permits.

Employers' Duties

The requirements placed upon employers of minors normally include:

  • Maintaining records of the ages of all minor workers;

  • Where work permits are required, keeping copies of minor employees' work 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.

An investigation of a labor law violation may be triggered by a minor's receiving medical treatment or other benefits covered by workers compensation after an on-the-job injury.

Age-Based Restrictions on Employment

Restrictions on Older Teens (Ages 16 - 17)

Older teens face the fewest workplace restrictions.

Depending upon the laws of the state in which they live, if enrolled in high school, they may be subject to a limit 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. For example, state law may require that a minor's work shift end no later than 11:00 P.M.

Older teens are also restricted from holding jobs that are considered to be hazardous, or to operate potentially dangerous machinery. Safety restrictions may include not only the obvious, such as a prohibition on the operation of heavy construction equipment or employment in mining or manufacturing, but also prohibit the operation of machines that seem more mundane, such as delicatessen meat slicers. These restrictions apply to all minors and cannot be overcome by parental consent.

Most jurisdictions require that minor employees of any age be given periodic breaks, with the frequency and length of the breaks being dependent upon the length of a minor's shift. Although the specific requirements vary, a typical state law will require a break of at least fifteen minutes for any shift worked, and a minimum half hour uninterrupted break for any shift that is more than four hours in length. Where shift length exceeds four hours, a second break may be mandated.

Some states authorize apprenticeship programs for older teens, and those programs may provide for some level of exemption from work restrictions imposed in other employment contexts. The requirements for an employer to qualify to offer apprenticeships will depend upon state law, and can be significant.

Restrictions on Young Teens (Aged 14-15)

In most states, teens aged fourteen and fifteen may hold a significant range of jobs considered to be non-dangerous in nature. These younger teens are normally limited in the number of hours they can work, and the limits on their hours typically extend year-round, although they are usually permitted to work more hours during school break periods than when school is in session.

Typically, a younger minor's work shifts must end no later than 7:00 PM during the school year and 9:00 PM in the summer. Break rules are normally the same as those described for older teens.

Teens within this age range 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 within this age range can usually work on farms outside of school hours, although parental permission may be required.

Some states will not let teens below the age of sixteen work in business locations where alcohol is served.

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

For minors under the age of fourteen, job restrictions are significant. Jobs that are typically open to kids aged thirteen or younger include:

  • Newspaper delivery routes;
  • Babysitting;
  • 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 that 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.

It is important to understand that many jobs available to younger teens don't carry workers' compensation coverage.

Even if a job sounds like it will be safe, before you consent to your child's employment you should investigate the safety of the child's job by visiting the workplace or touring the proposed newspaper route, and make sure that your family has appropriate private insurance coverage to cover any injury to the child.

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.

Although children below the age of sixteen are not ordinarily permitted to work in their parents' dangerous businesses, such as mining or manufacturing facilities, there is a long-standing exception for working on a parent's farm. Parents are still expected to follow other labor laws and school attendance laws.

Wage Laws for Minors

The federal minimum wage applies to work by minors, although exemptions may exist for the employment of younger minors or for participants in apprenticeship programs. Some employers attempt to circumvent these wage rules.

Violations of Wage Laws

As with adult employees, some employers of minors attempt to avoid minimum wage laws, or pay minors under the table to avoid maintaining required records of employment.

In the agricultural sector, some unscrupulous employers 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.

"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.

Parents' Rights

In most states, 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 is deemed to be implied in the absence of an actual objection.

In a jurisdiction that treats a minor child's earnings as the property of a parent, 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 last reviewed or amended on Apr 13, 2018.