A proposal that would eliminate restrictions on the number of hours that 16- and 17-year-olds could work received its first hearing in the Florida Legislature on Wednesday, where it passed on a party-line vote in the GOP-controlled committee.
Since Tampa Bay House Republican Linda Chaney first filed the measure (HB 49) in September, no bill has received more attention going into the 2024 regular legislative session.
The measure limits restrictions that now prohibit 16- and 17-year-olds from working more than six consecutive days in any one week or working 4 hours continuously without a break of at least 30 minutes for a meal period to only apply to minors 15 and younger.
Democrats and several public speakers said passage of the proposal could lead to the exploitation of teenagers and allow employers to get away with paying lower wages, but Chaney said it would simply align Florida with federal child labor laws as well as those in 24 other states.
“In 1938, 60% of 16- and 17-year-olds were working. Today that has dropped to 38%,” Chaney told members of the House Regulatory Reform & Economic Development Subcommittee in introducing her proposal. “Nearly a million [internet] searches have been performed, ‘How can I get a job as a teen?’ They want to work.”
The measure to loosen child labor laws is part of a trend in certain states around the country. Florida is now the 16th state to introduce legislation rolling back child labor protections in the past two years and the 13th to do so this year, according to the Economic Policy Institute, a nonprofit think tank in Washington, D.C.
The proposal by Chaney doesn’t go as far as some states have in loosening child labor regulations. Arkansas’ Youth Hiring Act of 2023 eliminates work permits for 14- and 15-year-olds, for example. And Iowa’s Youth Employment measure allows 14- and 15-year-olds to work in meat coolers and industrial laundries, and teens 15 and older can work on assembly lines around dangerous machinery, according to U.S. News & World Report.
Like in all committees in a Legislature with a Republican supermajority, Democrats were handicapped in what they could do to stop the proposal.
Jacksonville Democrat Angie Nixon proposed five separate amendments to the legislation, including one that would create a state Department of Labor, a measure (HB 425) that she has separately introduced for the coming session. “Wage theft is a major issue across our state,” she said. “I’m worried that 16- and 17-year-olds might be taken advantage of.”
Not surprisingly, none of her amendments passed.
Nor did an amendment offered by Orlando Democrat Anna Eskamani, who, noting how Chaney had referred to 16- and 17-year-olds as “youth workers,” said it should be appropriate to repeal state law that requires that a woman in Florida under the age of 18 must notify a parent or legal guardian that she intends to have an abortion.
Eskamani’s amendment said that “you don’t have to seek special notification consent to a parent or guardian if the minor is 16 or 17-years of age and legally employed.” It also went down to defeat on a party line vote.
Democrats argued the Legislature would send conflicting signals after passing a measure during the 2023 regular legislative session that prevents middle schools from beginning the instructional day earlier than 8 a.m., while high schools are barred from starting the school day before 8:30 a.m.
“We just recently passed a law having the school days starting later because teenagers need more sleep, “said Palm Beach Democrat Joe Casello. “I don’t see how this bill helps that. This bill contradicts the premises of that bill.”
Rep. Chaney envisioned that if the measure passes, the majority of teenagers who want to work would most likely do so the hospitality and retail sectors. Industry representatives were ecstatic about the prospect.
‘Flood of support’
Samantha Padgett, vice president for government relations at the Florida Restaurant & Lodging Association, said she usually only receives “a trickle of comments” when she asks for feedback from her members about pending legislation. But not this time.
“This was a flood of positive support from our hoteliers and our restaurateurs in the state of Florida,” she said. “This would significantly help them and make a positive difference in their business and also make a positive investment in the future of their business by being able to invite 16- and 17-year olds into the work force and start their career development early.”
Two young people testified about the legislation.
Logan Schoenberg is a 16-year-old who said he wished he could work more than 30 hours a week at Martial Arts Academy.
“I feel like they should be given the freedom to choose what they want to take career-wise and their path,” he said. “The earlier you start, you know, the better off you’re going to be with experience.”
But 18-year-old Christian Tingle, who said he’s worked since he was 15, said it was important to keep the child labor laws now in place.
“We do not let minors go into high school working from 12 a.m. to 6 a.m.,” he said. “How are they going to function in school? I know people who did that, working under the table, and they did not succeed in high school. You cannot succeed in high school if you are going straight from work to school.”
Republicans on the committee said they were stunned at the Democrats’ response to the bill.
“I’m shocked at the grandstanding for this bill,” said GOP Rep. Jeff Holcomb, who represents parts of Hernando and Pasco counties. Holcomb said that he worked as a youth washing dishes and busing tables. “I learned a work ethic. I learned the value of a dollar. I learned how to save money from those jobs,” he said, adding that nobody was being forced to take a job.
The measure will move on to its next committee stop when the Legislature returns to Tallahassee next month as the official legislative session commences.
No Senate equivalent to Chaney’s measure has been filed yet. But there has been a bill proposed by Tallahassee Republican state Sen. Corey Simon (SB 460) that would allow 16- and 17-year-old to work on any scaffolding roof, superstructure, or building construction sites if they received an Occupational Safety and Health Administration certification and under supervision of someone 21 years or older.
–Mitch Perry, Florida Phoenix