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Trump’s War on Labor Now Includes Teens

By shrinking the regulatory state, the administration is putting young, vulnerable workers at risk.

Tom Pennington/Getty Images

The Department of Labor’s regulatory agenda may soon dredge up an old fight in America’s labor wars. As sources told Bloomberg Law on May 8, the DOL is reconsidering regulations on the labor 16- and 17-year-olds may perform in certain hazardous industries. “That includes roofing work, as well as operating chainsaws, and various other power-driven machines that federal law recognizes as too dangerous for youth younger than 18,” Bloomberg Law reported. DOL will propose the change by October.

Current regulations allow 16- and 17-year-olds to work for an hour per day in defined hazardous industries, under close supervision, consistent with protections stipulated by the Fair Labor Standards Act. The DOL wants to increase the amount of time minors may work in these industries, as part of an ongoing push to expand apprenticeship programs. As Bloomberg Law also notes, at least one Democratic senator, Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, had asked Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta to reconsider the time restrictions in a Senate hearing. Acosta told her that the DOL was looking into it, on the “theory” that it was safer for 17-year-olds to learn how to use dangerous equipment than waiting until they were 18.

Bipartisan support or not, the apprenticeship push now seems linked to a larger, more troubling push by the White House. Deregulation emerged early as a priority for the Trump administration, and advocates and experts tell me that the DOL’s child labor proposal fits into that agenda. Congress has repeatedly used the Congressional Review Act to overturn Obama-era regulations. “One was a rule to implement an executive order on fair pay and safe workplaces, which provided greater accountability and oversight for firms that wanted to be federal contractors to demonstrate their compliance with federal labor and safety and health laws,” explained Peg Seminario, director of occupational safety and health for the AFL-CIO. Another was a rule requiring injury recordkeeping in the workplace. Without it, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) will have difficulty enforcing recordkeeping obligations, and workers will lack a key way to understand the dangers that may wait for them at work.

From packing the National Labor Relations Board with anti-labor officials to rolling back regulations on child labor, the Trump administration has waged a near-constant war on workers. Deregulation has a cumulative effect: Workers become more vulnerable, and are increasingly forced to depend on the tender mercies of their bosses. The DOL has proposed plunging minors into this precarity, where they would find few options for escape. College costs are rising, and so are health care costs. Wages, meanwhile, have stayed relatively stagnant. Minors could find themselves trapped in dangerous industries without the means to treat whatever injuries they incur.

This isn’t even the administration’s first attempt to roll back child labor restrictions: In December 2017, the Environmental Protection Agency gave notice that it would reconsider age restrictions on the handling of dangerous pesticides. As Dave Jamieson reported for HuffPost in March 2018, the EPA proposed a rule change after the Farm Bureau lobbied for relaxed rules. “Supporters of the age restrictions told HuffPost in January that growers probably want to remove them because work performed by minors tends to be cheaper than work done by adults,” Jamieson wrote.

Speaking on background, a veteran of the Obama administration’s DOL said they could recall only one instance of the department changing a child labor restriction in response to industry lobbying during the Obama era. In 2011, lobbyists for the nursing home industry asked the department to allow 16- and 17-year-olds to operate patient lifting devices in nursing home facilities. The DOL forwarded the request to the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), which settled on a compromise policy. Those minors can now use the devices, but only with adult supervision.

Buried in NIOSH’s report on lifting devices is a section on the ability of young workers to recognize when a task may be dangerous. Research cited by the agency reveals that workers ages 16 and 17 often didn’t realize that particular tasks put them at risk. “The tasks least likely to be recognized as hazardous or dangerous were operating power equipment, with only 1.6 percent of respondents who perform these tasks recognizing them as hazardous,” NIOSH reported. “Of the 36 working youth who reported operating a forklift or other hoisting equipment, none (0 percent) of the respondents recognized these tasks as hazardous or dangerous.” The same study found that safety training didn’t increase the likelihood that young workers would correctly identify hazardous tasks.

Unless 16- and 17-year-olds have changed drastically since 2011, they haven’t become better, wiser workers. Adolescent brains are still in development and this in turn affects decision-making capacities. It’s true that 17-year-olds don’t suddenly mature on their 18th birthdays, but a major flaw still undermines Acosta’s stated reasoning: 16- and 17-year-olds are usually in high school, or some other form of vocational training. They aren’t restricted to one hour of work simply because they’re physically and psychologically immature, but because there are other demands on their time, like homework. While many teens find ways to balance their coursework with more than one hour of paid work per day, it’s hardly ideal that they’re obligated to do so—and in hazardous trades, risk of injury increases as a worker becomes more fatigued.

Echoing these concerns, Minnesota Rep. Keith Ellison has asked the Department of Labor to explain its reasoning for the leaked proposal to weaken child labor laws. In a letter the Democratic congressman’s office intends to send to Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta, Ellison cites evidence that a decline in work-related injuries among minors can be traced to stricter workplace regulation. It asks the DOL if NIOSH has had an opportunity to review this latest proposal and if the department received any requests from industry bodies to loosen child labor restrictions. It further raises questions about the department’s overarching approach to regulation:

According to a Bloomberg report, the Department aims to eliminate what you believe to be burdensome government regulations with ‘industry standards.’ Please detail what constitutes industry standards. Are industry standards as protective or more protective than current regulations and laws enforced by the Department? Please cite all studies and evidence you used to come to this conclusion.

The letter asks for a response by June 6.

During Acosta’s previous tenure on the National Labor Relations Board in 2002 to 2003, he usually agreed with other Republicans, and as labor secretary, he has shown little opposition to Donald Trump’s deregulatory agenda. The Trump administration’s priorities only become more suspect when the broader makeup of his cabinet is considered. HuffPost reported in November 2016 that now-Education Secretary Betsy DeVos donated heavily to the Acton Institute, a libertarian think tank that once called child labor “a gift our children can handle” in a post on its website.

On the campaign trail, Trump echoed a common conservative refrain about running government like a business. Well, industry loves cheap labor and fewer rules. Now that industry is in government, with few checks on its power, the DOL’s child labor proposal makes all the more sense.