The Florida House of Representatives passed legislation Thursday easing child labor restrictions to allow 16- and 17-year-olds to work the same hours as adults. Democrats tried several times to modify the proposal but were unsuccessful.
The measure comes as GOP-controlled state legislatures have moved to roll back child labor laws in industries such as food and roofing.
Under existing law, 16- and 17-year-olds can work up to eight hours per day and 30 hours a week. Employers have to provide them with breaks every four hours.
That would also change under HB 49, which would hold teens to the same break standards as adults. But in Florida, there would be no legal requirements for breaks in the workplace.
Those 16- and 17-year-olds could work more than six days in a row if the bill becomes law. Republicans have pitched the move as an avenue to give children opportunities for career development.
“I can’t believe that taking away the 30-hour requirement is such a gigantic ordeal. It’s not. I would say 99% of the kids probably won’t ever work past 30 hours in a week. They have other things to do; they have their social lives, their school, time with parents and friends. But our kids are not victims,” Republican Rep. Jeff Holcomb of Hernando and Pasco counties. “They can defend themselves, and guess what? They can talk to their parents if they have issues. They’re gonna learn time management, work ethic, and they’ll learn the value of a dollar.”
Democrats warned the bill would hinder students’ school performance and expose them to exploitative practices.
“Our children are not merely small adults ready to bear the burdens of life toils; they are dreamers, thinkers and the very embodiment of our state’s future promise. At every corner of our state children are finding their passions, honing their skills, and learning the values that will define their character,” said Orange County Democratic Rep. Lavon Bracy Davis. “They are deeply engaged in educational pursuits and extracurricular activities that spark joy and ignite flames of lifelong interest. To place the weight of labor upon their shoulders is to extinguish these flames, to snuff out the spark before they can ever truly catch fire.”
None of the nine amendments from Democrats garnered enough support to change the proposal. Some of those amendments would have required employers to give minors work breaks every five hours, create provisions to prevent heat illness, and keep a record of sexual harassment incidents in the workplace.
“We as a legislative body talk so much about protecting children, and yet here we are opening up the possibility that children will be exploited as cheap labor. They deserve so much more. I wrote an amendment that would protect them from deadly heat exposure, and yet it was voted down,” Orange Democratic Rep. Rita Harris said.
The sponsor of the bill, Republican Rep. Linda Chaney of Hillsborough and Pinellas, insisted that even with the changes, Florida would offer more child labor regulations than the federal government. Federal regulations on child labor haven’t changed since the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938.
“Yes, we are aligning ourselves with federal labor laws, but we still are more restrictive. I am yet to hear one person go to Washington and say we need to change the federal labor laws,” Chaney said.
She said that employers would not exploit minors because it costs more to hire a new employee than to retain staff.
“This bill is about choice and opportunity for families. I trust that our families and that teens will make the right choice for them in their own individual situation. This is a very competitive market. As a small business owner … if we do not treat our employees in the way that they want to be treated, whether it has to be breaks, or hours, or days that they work, they leave,” Chaney said.
“It is much more costly and inconvenient, as a business owner, to hire, recruit, train an employee versus keeping an employee. So, the employee is in the driver’s seat. I reject the premise that a 16 and 17-year-old is not capable of understanding that. They communicate with each other. They’re going to gravitate to the employers that treat them the way they want to be treated.”
While the Senate is also looking to change the hours children can work, the chamber is taking a narrower approach than the House. SB 1596, which was heard for the first time earlier this week, still would bar 16- and 17-year-olds from working more than 30 hours per week. Republican senators are looking to allow students to clock in at 5:30 a.m. and clock out at midnight.
Another bill, sponsored by Sen. Corey Simon, who represents North Florida counties, would roll back child labor restrictions in the construction industry. That proposal has been changed to remove provisions allowing teens to work on commercial and residential roofs.
Democratic Reps. Anna Eskamani of Orlando and Angie Nixon of Jacksonville called out the crackdown on undocumented immigration last year, which they said was linked to labor shortages.
“We know that SB 1718 last year also exacerbated the labor shortage here; that anti-immigrant bill basically ground the agricultural and construction industries to a halt and now, again, here we are trying to exploit our children,” Nixon said.
Immigrant rights advocates and farmworkers have expressed concerns about immigrant children working instead of focusing on their education because of the bill.
The differences will make it more difficult to combine the bills if the Senate approves SB 1596. Originally, the House bill also removed restrictions that only allow 16- and 17-year-olds to work between 6:30 a.m. and 11 p.m. The version that passed the floor on Thursday allows minors to work as early as 6 a.m.
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