Florida legislature proposes dangerous rollback of child labor protections: At least 16 states have introduced bills putting children at risk

Updated November 14, 2023

This post has been updated to reflect confirmation of the Foundation for Government Accountability’s role in drafting the proposal to roll back child labor protections in Florida. Previously, the post indicated the group’s support for similar bills in other states and the likelihood of their involvement in Florida.

Last week, Florida became at least the 16th state to introduce legislation rolling back child labor protections in the past two years, and the 13th state to introduce such legislation in 2023. Florida’s bill proposes eliminating all guidelines on hours employers can schedule youth ages 16 or 17 to work, allowing employers to schedule teens to work unlimited hours per day or per week—including overnight shifts on school days. The bill was drafted by the Foundation for Government Accountability (FGA)—a Florida-based right-wing dark money group that has lobbied for similar proposals in multiple states.

At a time when violations of child labor laws are on the rise nationally—and amid reports of serious violations in Florida—lawmakers must act to strengthen standards, not erode existing minimal standards designed to keep youth safe at work and guarantee all children equal access to education.

Florida proposal threatens a century of progress on improving health, education, and economic outcomes for youth

Florida’s child labor bill proposes rolling back longstanding state standards adopted more than a century ago in response to widespread exploitation of children. Prior to the law’s passage in 1913, Florida children as young as five and six years old were employed in dangerous work in agriculture, seafood processing, canning, and the cigar industry. While Florida’s first child labor law contained many loopholes, was underenforced due to staffing constraints, and imposed only limited penalties, it established critical initial protections against employer exploitation of children. Specifically, it barred factories from hiring children younger than 14, limited work hours for youth under 16, and prohibited all employers from scheduling minors for night shifts.

Since 1913, Florida’s child labor law has been amended numerous times to expand protections for working youth. Currently, Florida employers cannot schedule 16- and 17-year-olds to work more than eight hours per day on school nights or more than 30 hours a week while school is in session. Newly proposed legislation would allow employers to schedule teens 16 and older for unlimited hours, including overnight shifts during the school year.

In addition to wiping out guidelines on daily or weekly work hours for 16- and 17-year-olds, the bill also includes a confusing change to other sections of state law intended to prevent excessive hours of work for teens. Current Florida law states 14- and 15-year-olds “shall not” be employed before 7 a.m. or after 7 p.m. or for more than 15 hours per week during the school year or three hours per day on school days, and that teens 17 or younger “shall not” be employed more than six consecutive days per week or more than four hours with a 30-minute meal period. However, the proposed bill states employers “may not” (rather than “shall not”) exceed these limits. While the intent and legal implications of this proposed language change are at this point unclear, the possibility that bill authors intend to make standards on work hours for the youngest teens “optional” for employers to follow is especially alarming.

The Florida bill also takes a step beyond weakening state law with a proposal to ban Florida localities from adopting any ordinance regulating “the presence of minors in public places and establishments” that is more stringent than state curfew laws, presumably as a preemptive measure barring local governments from regulating child labor in the future absence of state guidelines. This type of aggressive state preemption has become an increasingly common tactic in broader corporate campaigns to suppress worker rights, and is a longstanding tool of state interference in local democracy rooted in white supremacy in the South.

Proposals to extend teens’ work hours fly in the face of decades of research documenting that excessive work hours jeopardize teen health, development, and safety on the job. Because of the association between fatigue and both car accidents and workplace injuries, allowing teens to work unlimited hours is correlated with an increased risk of injuries to teens on the job site and in transit to or from work. These proposals also threaten the futures of young people, as youth who drop out of school to work go on to have the lowest earnings and highest unemployment rates of all workers as adults.

Alongside free public education and compulsory attendance laws, child labor protections have played a central role in achieving steady increases in high school completion rates over the past century. Florida has made especially significant progress on increasing high school completion rates in recent decades, with graduation rates increasing from 52% in 1998–99 to 90.1% in 2020–21. In this context, state legislative attempts to roll back child labor laws—coupled with the state legislature’s relentless attacks on public education—threaten to undo the progress Florida has made on its constitutional mandate to provide high-quality, equitable public education to all young people.

At a moment when child labor violations are on the rise, proposed Florida legislation expands on a dangerous national trend

Nationally, the number of minors employed in violation of child labor laws in fiscal year (FY) 2022 was 37% higher than FY2021 and 283% higher than FY2015 (see Figure A). The number of minors employed in violation of hazardous occupations orders increased 26% over FY2021 and 94% over FY2015.

Figure A

Child labor violations are on the rise: Minors employed in violation of child labor laws and hazardous occupation orders, fiscal years 2015–2022

Year Minors employed in violation of child labor laws Minors employed in violation of hazardous occupation orders
FY 2015 1,012 355
FY 2016 1,756 486
FY 2017 1,609 491
FY 2018 2,299 596
FY 2019 3,073 544
FY 2020 3,395 633
FY 2021 2,819 545
FY 2022 3,876 688
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Notes: Minors are workers less than 18 years old. Hazardous occupation orders ban minors from working in nonagricultural and agricultural occupations the Department of Labor defines as particularly hazardous for minors, or detrimental to their health or well-being.

Source: EPI analysis of Department of Labor (DOL) child labor violations data.

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In July 2023, agency officials reported that the Wage and Hour division of the federal Department of Labor (DOL) has concluded 765 investigations involving 4,474 children in the past 10 months alone. These numbers represent just a tiny fraction of violations, most of which go unreported and uninvestigated.

In the state of Florida since 2015, federal DOL investigators have found 900 employer violations of child labor law, resulting in $900,000 in fines. Investigators have also reported an uptick in Florida child labor cases since the pandemic, with examples ranging from a 2021 case where a landscaping company illegally employed a 13-year-old to operate a forklift and work more hours than allowed by law (so many that the company also violated overtime requirements and was ordered to pay back wages) to a 2022 case where a 15-year-old suffered severe head and spinal injuries while illegally employed by a roofing contractor that failed to take adequate safety precautions.

Of bills introduced in at least 16 states to weaken child labor protections in the past two years, nine have been signed into law so far (three in Michigan, two in Iowa, one in Tennessee, one in Arkansas, one in New Jersey, and one in New Hampshire). These new laws lift restrictions on hazardous work, lower the age for youth to work in the presence of alcohol, extend work hours, eliminate youth work permits, or implement some combination of these changes. Figure B provides a summary of recent child labor legislative activity by state.

Figure B

At least 16 states have introduced or passed laws rolling back child labor protections in the past two years: State child labor legislation activity, 2021–2023

State Indicator Status Bill Year Industry supporters Bill details Detailed status
Arkansas 1 Enacted HB 1410 2023 Opportunity Solutions Project (Foundation for Government Accountability) Eliminates age verification and parent/guardian permission requirements Enacted
Washington D.C.
Florida 2 Introduced HB 49 2023 Increases hours for 16–17 year-olds and preempts localities from enacting stronger laws Introduced
Georgia 2 Introduced HB 501 2023 Eliminates work certificate requirement; lowers age for work in landscaping Introduced; withdrawn
Iowa 1 Enacted 2023 (SF 542);
2022 (HF 2198)
Americans for Prosperity; Fareway Stores, Inc.; Home Builders Association of Iowa; Iowa National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB); Iowa Farm Equipment Dealers Association; Iowa Association of Business and Industry (ABI); Iowa Hotel and Lodging Association; Iowa Restaurant Association; Iowa Travel Industry Partners; Opportunity Solutions Project (Foundation for Government Accountability) [HF 2198];
Dubuque Area Chamber of Commerce (HF 2198)
Lifts restrictions on hazardous work; lowers age for alcohol service; extends work hours (SF 542);
Lowers minimum age of child care workers; increases staff-to-child ratios (HF 2198).
Enacted (SF 542);
Enacted (HF 2198)
Maine 2 Introduced LD 1332; 
LD 559
2023 (LD 1332);
2023 (LD 559)
Maine Tourism Association (LD 1332);  Maine Chamber of Commerce (LD 559) Subminimum wage for youth (LD 1332);
Extends work hours for some home-schooled youth during school year (LD 559)
Introduced (LD 1332); 
Introduced (LD 559)
Michigan 1 Enacted HB 5696 and HB 5726;
HB 4232
2022 (HB 5696 and HB 5726);
2022 (HB 4232)
Lowers age to work at liquor stores (HB 5696 and HB 5726);
Lowers age to serve alcohol (HB 4232)
Enacted (HB 5696 and HB 5726); 
Enacted (HB 4232)
Minnesota 2 Introduced SF 375;
SF 1102
2023 (SF 375);
2023 (SF 1102)
Lifts restrictions on hazardous work (SF 375);
Extends work hours (SF 1102)
Introduced (SF 375);
Introduced (SF 1102)
Missouri 2 Introduced SB 175 2023 Opportunity Solutions Project (Foundation for Government Accountability) Eliminates work certificate requirement for 16–17 year-olds Introduced
Nebraska 2 Introduced LB 15 2023 Subminimum wage for youth Introduced
New Hampshire 1 Enacted SB 345 2022 New Hampshire Lodging and Restaurant Association; New Hampshire Liquor Commission Lowers age to bus tables where alcohol is served; extends work hours Enacted
New Jersey 1 Enacted A4222 2022 New Jersey Chamber of Commerce; New Jersey Business and Industry Association Extends work hours; increases time before break Enacted
New Mexico
New York
North Carolina
North Dakota
Ohio 2 Introduced SB 30 2023 Americans for Prosperity; Pickerington Area Chamber of Commerce; Ohio NFIB; Ohio Restaurant Association Extends work hours Passed in the Senate
Rhode Island
South Carolina
South Dakota 2 Introduced HB 1180 2023 Extends work hours Introduced; withdrawn
Tennessee 1 Enacted HB 1212 2023 Lowers age from 18 to 16 for work in businesses that receive over 25% of monthly gross receipts from alcohol sales Enacted
Virginia 2 Introduced HB 1669 2023 Subminimum wage for youth Introduced; failed in the House
West Virginia
Wisconsin 2 Introduced SB 332;
AB 286
2021–2022 (SB 332);
2023 (AB 286)
Wisconsin Grocers Association; Wisconsin Independent Businesses, Inc.; Wisconsin NFIB; Association of Wisconsin Tourism Attractions; Wisconsin Hotel and Lodging Association (SB 332) Extends work hours (SB 332);
Lowers age to serve alcohol (AB 286)
Passed in the House and Senate, vetoed by the governor (SB 332);
Introduced (AB 286)

Source: EPI analysis of state legislative activity and news related to child labor legislation.

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At a moment when exploitative or hazardous forms of child labor are reemerging as a domestic concern across the U.S., strengthening existing weak child labor laws should be a priority in all state legislatures. The 1938 federal Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) set an important but weak floor for standards on minimum wage and child labor. States are free to exceed this floor, and in cases where federal and state standards differ, whichever of the two is stronger will apply. For instance, because Congress has failed for over a decade to increase the FLSA $7.25 minimum wage standard, 30 states and D.C. have adopted higher minimum wages, and in 2020, Florida became the first state to pass a $15 minimum wage through a voter-approved ballot measure.

Likewise, because the FLSA has never been updated to include standards on work hours for teens older than 15, many states including Florida have long maintained their own standards covering school-aged youth up to age 18. In addition to Florida, 24 states and D.C. set maximum daily and weekly limits on hours employers can schedule teens to work and/or prohibit employers from assigning night work to minors ages 16 or 17. By contrast, the industry-backed push to roll back these and other state child labor standards is an initial step in a longer-term project to weaken already-minimal federal FLSA standards intended to prevent hazardous or exploitative forms of child labor.

Florida-based “Foundation for Government Accountability” has led national push for state legislation to weaken child labor laws and increase economic desperation of poor children and families

As documented in our earlier report, multiple business and industry lobby groups continue to support rolling back state child labor laws in the interest of maintaining or expanding their access to low-wage labor. Recent reporting has further emphasized the role of the right-wing think tank and dark money group the Foundation for Government Accountability (FGA) and its lobbying arm Opportunity Solutions Project in using funding from billionaire donors to accelerate state legislative action on child labor laws in 2023. FGA’s efforts have focused especially on extending youth hours of work and eliminating youth work permits, which inform parents of a child’s rights at work, facilitate compliance with child labor laws, and can be used to aid in investigations of potential violations of the laws. Now, FGA is working to roll back child labor laws in its home state. According to documents obtained via an open records request filed by nonprofit news organization More Perfect Union, the language in House Bill 49 is nearly identical to language drafted by FGA’s lobbying arm just weeks earlier.

FGA has over 100 lobbyists in 22 states. When FGA has lobbied for the erosion of child labor protections in states like Arkansas, Iowa, and Missouri, they have simultaneously prioritized state law changes to limit access to anti-poverty programs like SNAP and Medicaid, cut unemployment insurance benefits, and support defunding public education through expansion of school vouchers in the same states.

In this context, dismantling child labor laws is just one prong of a broad agenda FGA promotes to weaken and eventually demolish the role of government and public institutions (including public schools), reduce and privatize the provision of public services (especially those most needed by poor children and families), and suppress the democratic process. Taken together, FGA’s priorities represent a radical, multilayered assault on low-income families and on a consensus embedded in U.S. federal and state laws for over a century that all children deserve equal access to economic opportunity and education.

Global advocates against exploitative child labor have long documented that family poverty is the root cause of oppressive child labor. Increasing the economic desperation of poor families in the U.S. will inevitably increase the number of children driven into oppressive child labor—defined in the FLSA since 1938 as employment of youth that interferes with a child’s schooling, is “particularly hazardous,” or is “detrimental to their health or well-being.”

Florida lawmakers must strengthen—not weaken—laws that safeguard against oppressive child labor

Florida’s proposal to allow employers to hire 16- and 17-year-olds for unlimited hours of work is the latest attempt from corporate interests to expand their access to low-wage labor via state legislation that will harm Florida’s poorest youth and their families. Amid increasing violations of child labor laws nationwide and in Florida, lawmakers must oppose efforts to weaken child labor protections. Instead, lawmakers should seek to close loopholes in current law, strengthen existing protections, and ensure all youth can access quality education alongside safe, age-appropriate, meaningful work opportunities that prepare them to thrive in today’s economy.