February 22, 2024

Kentucky Joins the 28 States Working to Roll Back Child Labor Laws

Today the State Legislature of Kentucky passed State House Bill 255 which repeals Kentucky's state-specific restrictions on employment for 14 to 18-year-olds. The State Commissioner for Workplace Standards (part of the governor’s administration) will be stripped of the authority to protect children in the workplace. The bill passed the Republican-dominated State House by a vote of 60-36. It must still pass the State Senate where Republicans hold 31 of 38 seats.

News outlets quoted Republican State Representative Phil Pratt, of Georgetown, as saying “It's an "economic imperative" to remove "barriers" to teens working because of national "labor crisis." Pratt was the lead sponsor on the bill. It should be noted that Pratt owns a landscape company and couldn’t personally benefit from this bill. Representative Pratt cites the current “labor crisis” as conservative commentators are pushing a narrative that “people don’t want to work” when we are currently seeing record low number in unemployment. The strong economy in the wake of the COVID recovery has seen job growth, favoring workers in the job market. When the unemployment numbers are lower, employers must offer higher wages to attract workers.

Current Kentucky state law caps a work week at 40 hours for 16-18 years, including parental permission and a grade point average of 2.0 or higher with their school work to qualify to work 40 hours. House Bill 255 removes all those qualifications and will allow 16-18-year-olds to work as many hours a week as their employer demands. Teenager workers usually earn less than their adult coworkers, which could lead to employers laying off adults and replacing them with lower-wage workers.

Similar laws are working their way through Republican Legislatures across the country. What type of teenagers do you think are working and going to school? According to labor statistics, in 2023, 30% of high school students nationwide were employed. A recent study by Walden University found that students who work 20 hours a week while attending high school see a negative impact on their academic performance. If working 20 hours cuts into study time and results in lower grades, how do you think 40-plus hours a week will impact students?

It is a common belief that a part-time job can have a positive impact on high school students. But those same studies point out that high school students should work no more than 15-20 hours a week. When work hours exceed that point, students' academic results suffer. Students have no time to study, are tired, and lose interest in their schoolwork. As grades slip, so does a student’s ability to be prepared for college or trade school after they graduate.

Over the past year, 28 states have introduced bills to attack child labor laws. Why would some lawmakers want to roll back 100-year-old protections from the Fair Labor Standards Act? Easy- to prevent improved wages for all workers. During the COVID-19 pandemic, a record number of workers retired in this country. Older workers remained in the job market because they held higher-ranking positions they enjoyed. As thousands of Americans were dying every day, those who no longer had to work – and were part of the most vulnerable part of society, retired. As their positions opened, people in the middle sections moved into those jobs, and those with entry-level jobs moved into the middle positions, creating openings at the bottom of the corporate-level jobs. Workers who had been stuck in lower-wage jobs then began moving into those entry-level positions. Those workers finally had benefits such as health care and livable wages. Many people who had been working two low-wage jobs now could get by with one income. However, those high-end business owners who had been exploiting their labor for so long now found themselves begging for employees. Restaurants that had paid substandard wages for years found themselves offering high wages and signing bonuses. If they could offer that now- they could have all along. Every dollar and hour a worker had been giving up, had gone directly into the pocket of their employer.

The shortage in the labor market has resulted in employers being forced to offer better pay. Now, these Republican State legislators want to add children to the job market to eliminate the shortage, allowing them a cheap labor market and curbing the wages they must pay older workers. During the child labor days of the Industrial Revolution, factories began hiring children. This allowed them to lower the wages of the adults, forcing parents to bring their children into the workplace, placing them in unsafe conditions for essentially slave wages.

So, who do you think Kentucky State Representative Phil Pratt will be working 40-plus hours a week at his landscaping business? His teenagers or yours?  Those teenagers working in fast food restaurants who will now be required to close at one in the morning, how do you think they will be able to make it to school the next morning? How well do you think they will be able to conduct their studies?

Ten companies control the 50 largest fast-food chains across the United States. These aren’t mom-and-pop operations struggling to get by they are multinational corporations profiting from low wages and no benefits. If we allow these corporations and their bought and paid-for state and national elected officials to stack the deck against workers, it will become harder and harder for working-class Americans to get by.

Let’s start by voting out elected officials who are willing to return your children and mine to the days of sweatshop labor. As these teens are allowed to work full-time while trying to go to school, it hurts them, it hurts you, all the while the pockets of the wealthy are being padded. Our children deserve better.

Who Are We?


Tim Smith, Director

UAW Region 8






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