The New Wave of Child Labor Laws

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When Michael Nuzzo, 13, isn’t busy with homework on the weekends, he often spends a few hours helping out his parents at the pizzeria they own in Connecticut. For the Nuzzos, this is a family tradition. Michael’s father, who is also named Michael, began working for his dad at a young age too and is proud of the skills that he learned and can now pass down to his oldest child. “[My son] helps me make pizza, and he's an excellent pizzaman just like I was when I was his age," the father told ABC News. But the family business has come under fire recently for this practice.

Last month, Connecticut’s labor department launched an investigation into the Nuzzo family and their pizzeria to enforce the state’s child labor laws, which prohibit children under the age of 14 from working in a commercial business. The state has not tried to fine the family yet, but Michael Nuzzo and his wife Midgalia see the investigation as an encroachment on their basic rights and have filed a federal complaint against the state.

Connecticut is known for having stricter child labor laws than most states and even the federal government. At the moment, the official federal policy is that children 13 and younger can work for a business “solely owned or operated by your parents.” Yet, as extreme as this case may be, it is only the most recent battle in the long war over child labor laws in America.

Nearly a century ago, the U.S. took the first major step toward imposing federal guidelines for how much a child can work in this country. In 1916, Congress passed the Keating-Owen Act, which prohibited companies from selling any goods made by children under the age of 14 or 16, depending on the business. Throughout the 1800s, dozens of states had enacted their own similar legislation and this bill was meant to cap that effort. But instead, it was shot down by the Supreme Court, as was a similar piece of legislation that followed two years later.

Ultimately, a federal child labor law eluded advocates for more than two decades, until in 1941, the Supreme Court approved the Fair Labor Standards Act, regulating the acceptable working hours and conditions for children under 18. Today, many may assume the battle over child labor in this country is more or less settled, but this year has seen a renewed fight to strengthen the labor laws currently on the books.

The U.S. Department of Labor announced last week that it is increasing the penalties for those who employ children illegally to as much as $11,000, depending on the circumstances. Currently, the fine is just $1,000. But perhaps more notably, the labor department may now go after farmers who rely on underage workers.

Until now, U.S. child labor laws had applied only for “hazardous nonagricultural occupations,” meaning farmers have essentially been exempt from these laws. For this reason, according to The New York Times, several hundred thousand children under 18 work on farms each year across the country. In general, American businesses are only allowed to have children under 16 work 18 hours a week during the school year and must pay them appropriately.  However, some farmers have been known to have children under the age of 16 work 10 hours or more a day doing potentially dangerous tasks only to pay them below minimum wage. But now, this is beginning to change.

“The Obama administration has opened a broad campaign of enforcement against farmers who employ children and underpay workers, hiring hundreds of investigators and raising fines for labor and wage violators,” the Times reports. As part of this effort, the labor department has already issued heavy fines on farmers who employ especially young children, as happened with one Arizona farmer who hired kids as young as 10 years old. But for the time being, much of this effort rests with Congress, where senators and representatives are working separately on proposals that would toughen agricultural labor laws by banning farmers from “hiring of 12- and 13-year-olds, cap working hours by 14- and 15-year-olds and keep teenagers out of hazardous jobs.”

While legislators debate this bill in Congress, some states are already clarifying their own child labor laws. Earlier this month, Thomas Murt, a state representative from Pennsylvania, introduced a new bill to limit the number of hours child actors can spend filming. Murt was himself a child actor and argues that the bill is a response to the growing number of shows being filmed in Pennsylvania.

And then, of course, there is the Connecticut case with the family pizzeria, which more than other may highlight the fringe of the child labor movement in this country.  Americans may agree, for the most part, that kids should not be forced to toil away in a warehouse for a big business instead of going to school, but are we going too far by imposing the same restrictions on family businesses as we do with big companies?

Next on the docket: strengthening the laws that regulate how internships work.

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