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Business community and advocates clash on child labor legislation; what’s best for the kids?


Within two weeks of the state’s 2024 legislative session, a clash has erupted between Florida’s powerful business community and 100 groups who are opposing rollbacks on child labor laws, with families, teens and education caught in between the skirmish.

Just last week, lawmakers in the House pushed to allow 16- and 17-year olds to work more than 30 hours a week during the school year and allow for fewer mandatory work breaks.

On Wednesday in the Senate, lawmakers had provided a bill with exemptions allowing minors as young as 16 to perform commercial and residential roofing work, but that was amended — now the bill removes teens from working on commercial sites and any jobs with roofs, ladders and scaffolding over six feet.

Still, there’s cause for concern, according to a letter written Wednesday by the Florida Policy Institute to House Speaker Paul Renner, Senate President Katheen Passidomo and members of the Legislature.

“We are concerned with the numerous harmful implications of these proposals,” the letter states.

It adds: “We understand that some employers are struggling with labor shortages in select industries since the pandemic, including hospitality and construction. However, overworking teens and denying them breaks when their minds and bodies are still developing is not the answer …”

And 100 groups signed off on the letter, rejecting aspects of the legislation. Some of the groups include: FL National Organization for Women, AFL-CIO, Florida Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, Florida Education Association, Florida Immigrant Coalition, League of Women Voters of Florida and Pastors for Florida Children.

And on Wednesday, a group calling itself Youth Action Fund released a statement saying that protesters had entered the office of Republican Rep. Linda Cheney, the sponsor of the bill allowing 16- and 17-year-olds to be able to work more than 30 hours a week, and “repeatedly requested to meet” with her to voice their concerns.

A public opinion survey conducted by Mason Dixon Polling & Strategy for the Florida Policy Institute that was released last week showed that 72% of registered Florida voters said that they opposed changing the law to allow employers to schedule 16- and 17-year old workers past 11 p.m on a school night and more than 30 hours in a school week.

Senator waters down proposal

On Wednesday in the Senate Education Pre-K-12 Committee, Republican Corey Simon amended his bill (SB 460). The change now removes teens from working on commercial sites and any jobs with roofs, ladders and scaffolding over six feet.

The measure is one of two bills filed in the current Florida legislative session designed to roll back child labor laws that have the full backing of the business community in Tallahassee.

Florida GOP state Sen. Corey Simon discussing his bill in the Senate Education Pre-K-12 Committee on Jan. 17, 2024 (photo credit: Mitch Perry)

Simon, who represents several North Florida counties, is primarily focused on making changes to education and workforce development to encourage more young people to get involved in the skills trades.

But the provision that would allow 16- and 17-year-olds to be employed on any scaffolding roof, superstructure or residential or nonresidential building construction if he or she had earned their Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) 10 certification had provoked the most attention.

Under the child labor provisions of the Fair Labor Standards Act, employers are banned from allowing minors under the age of 18 to perform roofing activities and engaging in any work that requires the use of ladders or scaffolds.

That prompted Miami-Dade Democratic Sen. Shevin Jones on Wednesday in the Senate Education Pre-K-12 Committee to ask Simon if he had received an opinion from the federal government on whether the proposal violated any child labor laws, and if not, would he consider sending a letter to the U.S. Department of Labor to review the bill.

South Florida Democratic state Sen. Lori Berman later asked Simon that with his measure now being scaled down now to only allow 16 and 17-year-olds to work on residential projects with roofs no higher than six feet, what type of specific projects would they be able to do now that they previously couldn’t?

Simon acknowledged that he wasn’t sure.

“I don’t know”

“I’m not in the construction industry,” Simon said. “I don’t know every job on a residential job site. I can imagine there are some clean up opportunities for those students to be able to work in those areas. Drywall, some of those things.”

A more problematic piece of Simon’s bill calls for removing municipalities from having the power to require the presence of a licensed journeyman when industrial or commercial construction is being conducted within facilities where electrical work is being performed.

After Berman raised objections to that provision, a lobbyist for the Associated Builders and Contractors of Florida went before the committee to admit that her organization wrote that particular provision, which she said needed to be clarified because it was written to eliminate the redundant fees that qualified journeymen are required to pay in every jurisdiction where they work.

“I have said to Sen. Simon right now, the way that it looks right now is my fault. So you have our commitment to fix it. Having journey workers on the job is critically important,” said Carol Bowman, with the Associated Builders and Contractors of Florida.

The Orlando Weekly reported last month that public records showed that both the Associated Builders and Contractors and the Florida Home Builders Association drafted the legislation that was later filed into a bill by Simon.

Rich Templin, with the Florida AFL-CIO, said that his organization was conflicted about the proposal as it’s currently written.

He told lawmakers that instead of filling out a card asking about whether he would be speaking for or against the bill at the committee, Templin asked if there could be a third option listed: “It’s complicated.”

“If you look at the IBEW [the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers], the International Union of Crane Operators, the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades, they have state of the art facilities around the state, around the country, and a union apprenticeship is considered the gold standard,” he began, before adding that his organization did have “serious concerns” about some of the child labor provisions, and for now opposes the measure.

Critics concerned

Labor advocates around the state and country have been critical about the emergence of bills introduced this session in Tallahassee that roll back child labor laws.

Sixteen other states have passed similar laws around the U.S. over the past year, according to the Economic Policy Institute.

Meanwhile, advocates were unmoved by Simon’s amendment preventing 16- and 17-year-olds working on roofs and ladders higher than six feet.

“It’s not just about the height,” said Alexis Tsoukalas, an analyst with the Florida Policy Institute in a Zoom press conference after the measure was approved in committee. “It’s the fact that not only are teens not supposed to be working on roofing, but they’re not even allowed under federal law near roofing and doing roofing related jobs on the ground.”

“Let’s be clear– workers get killed on or around roofing jobs,” added Debbie Berkowitz, a fellow with the Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor and a former chief of staff at OSHA, also speaking on that Zoom press conference.

“The Bureau of Labor Statistics’ most recent reports found that roofing has the second highest fatality rate of any industry in the United States. Workers get killed on roofing jobs at more than 15 times the average for all industries. Further, employers must follow the federal law. If this legislation passes, employers that put kids to work on or near roofing jobs will be in violation of federal law.”

In 2021, there were 16 fatal roofing job injuries in Florida compared to 11 in 2020, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Republican State Rep. Linda Chaney. Credit: FL House of Representatives.

Meanwhile, the House bill (HB 49), sponsored by Tampa Bay area Republican Linda Chaney, is moving quickly. That’s the bill that would allow 16- and 17-year olds to work more than 30 hours a week during the school year and allow for fewer mandatory work breaks.

That measure has already moved through two committees and needs just a favorable vote in the House Commerce Committee to advance to the House floor for final approval in that chamber.

Advocates have blasted the measure, saying that the extended hours that teens would be able to work if the bill passes could result in hurting their high-school education. But supporters like Chaney have said the measure could actually benefit those students by providing them with additional skills that will give them more opportunities.

Pasco County Republican Danny Burgess is the Senate sponsor of Chaney’s bill (SB 1596), which has not yet been heard in committee. At the conclusion of Wednesday’s Senate committee meeting, he lashed out at critics of that proposal, saying, “some of the rhetoric around that has been really atrocious and completely unfactual and off base.”

Florida Legislature, 16-year-old workers, 17-year-old workers, Fair Labor Standards Act, Economic Policy Institute, Bureau of Labor


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