Commentary

Youth employment legislation deserves scrutiny

February 12, 2024 7:00 am

Legislators are considering bills to allow teens to work more hours in their after-school jobs. (Getty Images)

Sciatic nerve damage. That is what I was told at 16 was causing pain like a bolt of searing hot lightning down my back and my legs, keeping me up all night. Sixteen-year-olds are not supposed to have this condition, but thanks to being employed by an unscrupulous employer, I was injured on the job, landing me weeks of prescription medications and physical therapy.

Before the injury, I balanced my shifts at the restaurant with my high school classes, needing to contribute to my household to keep us afloat despite receiving Section 8 housing, SNAP, and WIC. My age, gender, and family’s poverty status all increased my vulnerability in the workplace, a power difference my employer exploited in its quest for profits.

At night, those of us who were minors at my place of work would be told to clock out before cleaning — a form of wage theft. We all knew if we spoke up, we would likely be fired and replaced with other youth in poverty from our area. Experiences like mine are part of the reality that should be shaping the debate about child labor laws in Indiana.

In Indiana, there has been a significant increase in child labor violations within the last decade. Young workers are three times more likely to suffer wage violations than other workers. Claims have been made in committee hearings this session on child labor legislation, such as Senate Bill 146, that these child labor violations are due to youth workers missing clock-out times by a few minutes, but a more complete exploration of the data is warranted.

While we know that most violations in the food service industry — where most youth work — are from hour violations for 14–15-year-olds (overworking) or hazardous work (operating dangerous kitchen equipment), we don’t have a complete picture of what is happening. What we do know is that penalties for violations in Indiana are trivial, with most first violations (including hazardous conditions for children) receiving warnings and second violations fines of $50-100 dollars.

Some employers take advantage

Amid these concerns, a deeper issue arises in the context of current child labor legislation discussions. The absence of strong regulations and enforcement places the onus on the youth in these contexts to speak up and push back against employers that take advantage of them. Legislators neglect to recognize that adults retain the most power, and in turn, can cause the most harm.

We are stealing from the futures of our youth for the profits of these businesses when we loosen protections on youth employment. As a teenager, I was overscheduled, overworked, and consequently exhausted during my school days, which was reflected in my classroom engagement and the grades I received.

My own experiences mirror national comprehensive research that shows excessive workloads for students negatively impact educational outcomes. Being overworked during my youth negatively impacted my ability to compete for opportunities to pursue higher education, which placed me in a deeper hole of poverty that I had to crawl my way out of over multiple years.

As Hoosiers, we value excellence in all we do, and supporting businesses that places profits over children’s well-being contradicts this value, allowing mismanaged organizations to flourish. Regulations exist to protect against predatory employers, not those who are supportive of minors and do their due diligence. Sadly, in my case, those who employed me during my youth did not have my health in their thoughts and further attempted to dissuade me from claiming workers’ compensation when I was injured on the job.

These are the kinds of employers labor laws and penalties are meant to address. Removing child labor restrictions is not, as one legislator expressed, the best workforce development policy in Indiana; this is one of the most harmful, and steals away the future of minors, particularly those experiencing poverty. We should instead end child poverty and ensure that we have the regulations, information, and tools needed to protect our youth, who are the future of our state.

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Lauren Murfree
Lauren Murfree

Dr. Lauren Murfree is a Policy Analyst for the Indiana Community Action Poverty Insitute. She is a social scientist with expertise in public policy, community-engaged research practices, public engagement and public health.

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