Republican lawmakers propose dropping work permits for 14- and 15-year-olds in Wisconsin

Wisconsin Republicans released a bill that would halt work permit requirements for 14- and 15-year-olds in the state, as lawmakers in at least 10 states push to roll back child labor laws.

Associated Press

August 21, 2023

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Two outdoor metal tables with attached chairs and umbrellas stand on the concrete patio in front of a building with poured concrete masonry, with the Wisconsin state seal affixed to the wall next to a letter sign reading State of Wisconsin, Department of Children and Families and Department of Workforce Development.

Umbrellas shade tables outside the entrance to the offices of the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development on July 15, 2020, in Madison. Under a bill Wisconsin Republicans released on Aug. 18, 2023, kids ages 14 and 15 would no longer need a work permit from the agency or parental permission to get a job. (Credit: Angela Major / Wisconsin Public Radio)

AP News

By Harm Verhuizen, AP

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Children ages 14 and 15 would no longer need a work permit or parental permission to get a job under a bill Republican Wisconsin lawmakers released on Aug. 18.

The proposal comes amid a wider push by state lawmakers to roll back child labor laws and despite the efforts of federal investigators to crack down on a surge in child labor violations nationally.

Under current law, 14- and 15-year-olds in Wisconsin are prohibited from working most jobs unless they have permission from a parent or guardian and have verified their age with the state Department of Workforce Development. The department can revoke youth work permits at any time if it believes a child’s safety is being threatened.

Sen. Cory Tomczyk and Reps. Clint Moses and Amy Binsfeld, the Republicans sponsoring the bill, called youth work permits “needless administrative barriers that slow down the hiring process.”

“It’s important that young people have the opportunity to work without having to endure excessive government regulation,” they said in a statement asking other lawmakers to cosponsor the bill.

The bill continues to require employers to keep their own records of employees’ ages and hours worked, but without work permits verified by a state agency, companies caught violating child labor laws can more easily claim ignorance.

Earlier in 2023, the Labor Department fined Wisconsin-based meat packing contractor Packers Sanitation more than $1.5 million for employing at least 100 children, some as young as 13, to clean dangerous equipment such as bone saws and skull splitters in plants across the U.S. The company claimed it wasn’t aware that those workers were minors but said it has since taken steps to improve the way it verifies employees’ ages.

State lawmakers across the country, largely Republicans, have in recent years embraced legislation that would allow kids to work longer hours and in more hazardous occupations. Many such bills were proposed as solutions to worker shortages, but advocates against child labor have decried the measures as needlessly endangering children.

Republican Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders signed a law in March eliminating permits that, similar to those in Wisconsin, required employers to verify a child’s age and obtain a parent’s consent.

Sanders later signed separate legislation raising civil penalties and creating criminal penalties for violating child labor laws, but advocates worry that eliminating the permit requirement makes it significantly more difficult to investigate violations because there are fewer records of where kids are being employed.

Earlier in the year, Wisconsin Republicans proposed allowing children as young as 14 to serve alcohol in restaurants and bars. If that bill passed, Wisconsin would have the lowest such limit nationwide, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.

The work permits bill proposed Aug. 18 follows little more than a month after a 16-year-old boy in northern Wisconsin died while working at a sawmill. Initial reports suggest that Michael Schuls was performing work allowed by state laws when he was killed by a wood-stacking machine, but his death and the deaths of other teen workers over the summer have brought increased attention to child labor rules.

Democratic Gov. Tony Evers is unlikely to sign either of the Wisconsin proposals into law if they pass the Republican-controlled Legislature. He vetoed a bill in 2022 that would have let 14- and 15-year-olds work later hours during the summer.

Evers’ Republican predecessor, former Gov. Scott Walker, signed a bill in 2017 that removed work permit requirements for 16- and 17-year-olds.

Harm Venhuizen is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.

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