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Older Ky. teens could work later, longer under bill passed to weaken child labor laws

Rep. Phillip Pratt, a Republican from Georgetown, presents a bill to the Senate Judiciary Committee.
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Republican Rep. Phillip Pratt of Georgetown owns a landscaping company and is sponsoring legislation that would allow older Kentucky teenagers to work later and longer hours.

A bill to remove working hour restrictions on 16- and 17-year-olds passed a House committee Thursday over objections from labor unions and policy advocates.

Older Kentucky teenagers would be able to work an unlimited number of hours each week and at any hour when school isn’t in session under a measure advancing in the state House of Representatives.

Bill sponsor Rep. Bill Pratt, a Republican from Georgetown, said he believes encouraging children to work more would get them “off the couch [and] quit playing Nintendo games.”

Opponents argue it could lead to exploitation of minors as they work toward a high school degree. They say it could also incentivize employers to rely more heavily on child labor. In response to concerns that lax child labor laws could hurt the state’s graduation rates and post-secondary attainment, Pratt suggested working in menial jobs early on can encourage students to try harder in school.

“If you think about dropping out of school and not getting a better education, go work for dad for eight hours, pushing his shovel, you will change your opinion on that,” Pratt said. “You will think, ‘Maybe I need to stay in school. Maybe I actually need to graduate and have a successful career.’”

House Bill 255 would keep state agencies from setting their own standards for child labor outside of those prescribed by legislators and written into federal law. Children 14 years and older are already allowed to work in Kentucky with a few added restrictions.

The bill that passed committee Thursday eliminates the authority of the Department of Workplace Standards to draft regulations to “protect the life, health, safety, or welfare of minors” that are more restrictive than federal law.

Pratt said the bill is designed to make Kentucky only as restrictive as absolutely necessary under federal law. Pratt owns a landscaping business, which he said does not currently employ minors, outside of a few interns, due to federal guidelines which prohibit children from operating heavy machinery.

“It's amazing that you can play sports but you can't work. We encourage students who want to experience the workplace and earn some money in the process to do so,” Pratt said.

The bill maintains that children under 16 years old can’t work more than three hours a day when school is in session or more than eight during school breaks. But there are no limitations for older high school students. The measure eliminates rules that restrict 16- and 17-year-old kids in how much and how late they can work in a given day or week, especially when school is in session and on school nights.

When another legislator asked Pratt if he thought children should be working later hours on school nights, he said he didn’t know which jobs might require teenagers to work late into the night.

“I’d have to take a look at the hours on that. I don’t know. I’d say it depends,” Pratt said.

Gerald Adkins, a lobbyist with the Kentucky State AFL-CIO, a union organization, said the bill could lead to the exploitation of minors. Adkins said he previously worked for the Kentucky Labor Cabinet, where he saw the significant impacts of overworking children.

“We are definitely not opposed to change that will better the working conditions. Not only for employees, but to ensure employers are able to successfully staff their businesses,” Adkins said. “We do not think taking protections away from our young workers is the best mechanism to accomplish this goal.”

Dustin Pugel, a policy director for the Kentucky Center for Economic Policy, testified he believes loosening the regulations could incentivize employers to rely more heavily on child labor, which typically pays less than adult labor.

“The result could be depressed wages and fewer job opportunities in industries like restaurants and retail that employ many thousands of Kentucky adult workers,” Pugel said.

Pugel said he's also concerned the legislation would complicate state enforcement of federal law as it removes references in state law to the Fair Labor Standards Act, which creates national standards for child labor. He also pointed out that current Kentucky regulations already allow children to work a significant amount during the school year.

“Helping kids become ready for careers or for college through high school is essential to their success in life,” Pugel said. “It's hard to see how allowing additional hours and days of work will not impinge on the success of preparing for post-secondary education or vocational pathways to good jobs following high school.”

Pratt said he doesn’t think encouraging children to participate more in the workforce would lead to lower educational attainment.

“If a 16- or 17-year-old wants to work, he or she should be free to do so,” Pratt said. “To me, it's no different than a student who wants to dedicate a lot of time to team sport or student clubs, volunteering in the community.”

A 2021 study found that intensive work — meaning working more frequently and for longer hours — is “a risk factor for poor grades and dropout.”

Louisville Democratic Rep. Nima Kulkarni said she was concerned the bill would encourage employers to force children to spend less time on school work, dangling a paycheck over their heads, and thus trapping them in a cycle of poverty.

“We're pushing them into these career tracks that they're never going to get out of because we're encouraging them to work at these jobs, instead of actually going back to school and bettering themselves,” Kulkarni said.

The bill would also allow 16 and 17 year olds to work during school hours if the student has been expelled from public school or a court order has prohibited them from attending school or have otherwise been excused from compulsory school attendance.

Kulkarni said she was concerned that would encourage students to never reenter the education system.

“We should be proud that [Kentucky’s child protection laws] are stronger than federal law, we don't need to be weakening them,” Kulkarni said.

The bill that Pratt proposed also does not allow the state cabinet to update the list of hazardous occupations for children — leaving that authority solely to legislators or federal agencies.

The measure now moves to the House floor for consideration.

Sylvia is the Capitol reporter for Kentucky Public Radio, a collaboration including Louisville Public Media, WEKU-Richmond, WKU Public Radio and WKMS-Murray. Email her at sgoodman@lpm.org.