ComplianceLegalNovember 11, 2020

Are you subject to child labor laws?

Federal and state laws place various restrictions on the hours and types of occupations for employing minors. Different rules may apply to workers under 18 and workers under 16. In addition, if you employ minors you will most likely need to obtain your state's version of an age or employment certificate in order to comply with state child labor laws.

Employing minors subjects employers to federal and state wage and hour law restrictions. Except for certain limited circumstances, these laws do not prohibit businesses from employing a child but generally they set out restrictions about what kind of work children can do, when they can do it, and how old they have to be to do it.

Federal child labor laws

Originally, federal law restricted child labor only where interstate activities were concerned. Subsequent amendments extended the reach of the child-labor restriction to all the activities of businesses that qualify as enterprises under the law. Therefore, under the federal Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), unless a child's employment meets one of the exemptions, the employment of a child is restricted.

Exemptions. You are not subject to child labor requirements, but are still subject to minimum wage, overtime pay, and equal pay requirements, if your minor employee's employment meets one of the following conditions:

  • Farm employment outside of school hours. Children under the age of 12 may not be employed on farms outside of school hours, except by a parent or guardian or, with parental consent, on a farm exempt from wage requirements. However, the law permits 10 and 11-year-olds to engage in hand harvest agricultural labor for up to eight weeks a year where a number of conditions are satisfied. Children age 12 or 13 may not work on farms outside of school hours, except with parental consent or on a farm where a parent or guardian also is employed.
  • Parental non-farm employment. Parental employment of children in occupations other than manufacturing, mining, or those officially deemed hazardous for children is not restricted by federal law. Even the "hazardous occupations" are permitted for children employed on farms owned or operated by their parents.

Tip: Not only do most child labor laws not apply to you if you are employing your own child, but in fact, you may be eligible for special tax breaks for hiring your kids.

  • Theatrical employment. Employment of children as actors or performers in motion pictures or in theatrical, radio, or television productions is not prohibited.
  • Amish children. Amish teenagers aged 14 to 18 are allowed to work as apprentices in traditional Amish sawmills and woodworking industries. The teenagers may enter apprenticeships once they complete their formal education. The teenagers are not allowed to operate or assist in the operation of power-driven woodworking machines. The teenagers are also required to wear protective equipment and be under the supervision of an adult relative or other Amish adult.

Warning: These exemptions apply to child labor restrictions under federal law. Most states have child labor restrictions, as well, so be sure to check your state's laws in assessing your liability.

If a minor's employment does not fall under one of the exemptions, the federal wage and hour law's child labor restrictions are dependent upon the age of the minor employee.

Labor restrictions on employees under 18

Federal law places employment restrictions on minors under 18 years of age.

The FLSA specifically prohibits minors under the age of 18 from working in the following hazardous occupations (note that additional restrictions are placed on employees who are under 16):

  • occupations in or about plants manufacturing or storing explosives or articles containing explosive components
  • occupations of motor-vehicle drivers and helpers
  • coal-mine occupations
  • logging occupations and occupations in the operation of any sawmill, lath mill, shingle mill, or cooperage-stock mill
  • occupations involved in the operation of power-driven woodworking machines
  • occupations involving exposure to radioactive substances
  • occupations involving the operation of elevators and other power-driven hoisting apparatus
  • occupations involving the operation of power-driven metal forming, punching, and shearing machines
  • occupations in connection with mining, other than coal
  • occupations in or about slaughtering and meatpacking establishments or rendering plants
  • occupations involved in the operation of power-driven bakery machines
  • occupations involved in the operation of power-driven paper-products machines
  • occupations involved in the manufacture of brick, tile, and similar products
  • occupations involved in the operation and maintenance of circular and band saws and guillotine shears
  • occupations involved in the work of wrecking and demolition of buildings and in ship breaking
  • occupations involved in the application of weatherproofing materials and substances to roofs of buildings and other structures
  • occupations involved in excavation work

In some hazardous occupations, minors under 18 can be employed as long as certain conditions are met:

  • the operation of motor vehicles, allowing 16 and 17-year-olds to drive and ride on public and private roads and grounds so long as they remain in vehicle cabs, engage only in occasional driving of vehicles not exceeding 6,000 pounds of gross vehicle weight, or drive school buses
  • the operation of power-driven, woodworking machines
  • the operation of power-driven hoisting apparatus, allowing 16 or 17-year-olds to operate and ride in enclosed automatic elevators
  • the operation of power-driven, metal forming, punching, and shearing machines
  • the operation of power-driven paper-products machines
  • the operation of circular saws, band saws, and guillotine shears
  • the application of roofing materials
  • excavation work
  • loading of paper balers and compactors while the machines are turned off

In addition, the Department of Labor has finalized rules establishing and expanding protections for minors under 18 working in certain occupations, including:

  • the criteria permitting 16 and 17-year-olds to load, but not operate or unload, certain waste material baling and compacting equipment,
  • the limited on-the-job driving that may be performed by qualified 17-year-olds, and
  • the expansion of the current prohibition for under 18 minors working in roofing occupations to include all work on or about a roof, including work performed upon or in close proximity to a roof, unless the work is performed in an apprenticeship or student learner program.

Warning: Although federal law does not limit the hours that minors 16 and 17 years of age may work when the next day is a school day, some states do set such limitations. Generally, where such a rule exists, the rule is that minors who are 16 and 17 may work after 6 a.m. and before 10 p.m. or 11:30 p.m. on school nights.

Labor restrictions on employees under 16

Federal law places employment restrictions on minors under 16 years of age.

Work by minors between 14 and 16 years of age is confined by federal law, (FLSA), to the following:

  • must be outside of school hours
  • may not be more than 40 hours in any one week when school is not in session
  • may not be more than 18 hours in any one week when school is in session
  • may not be more than eight hours in any one day when school is not in session
  • may not be more than three hours in any one day when school is in session
  • must be between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. except during the summer (June 1 through Labor Day) when the evening limit is 9 p.m.

The limitations do not apply to students working in an approved work-training program where written documentation of the student's work time is authorized by the principal of the student's school.

Minors under 16: Prohibited and permitted employment

Under federal law, it is unlawful to employ minors under the age of 16 in the following:

  • manufacturing, mining, or processing of goods and occupations requiring any duties in workplaces where such operations take place
  • operation or tending of power-driven machinery other than office machines
  • public messenger service positions
  • occupations (except office/sales work) connected with:
    • transportation of persons or property by rail, highway, air, water, pipeline, or other means (the exception for office or sales work is inapplicable to work on trains or any other means of transportation)
    • warehousing and storage
    • communications and public utilities
    • construction, including demolition and repair
  • retail, food service, and gasoline service establishments, which may not employ 14- and 15-year-olds in the following occupations:
    • all occupations in which employment of 14- and 15-year-olds is generally prohibited (as explained above), except that retail, food service, and gasoline service establishments may employ such children in any of the permitted occupations even if they involve processing, operation of machines, and work in rooms where processing and manufacturing take place
    • work performed in or about boiler rooms
    • work in connection with maintenance or repair of the establishment, machines, or equipment
    • outside window washing that involves working from window sills and all work requiring the use of ladders, scaffolds, or their substitutes
    • cooking (except at soda fountain, lunch counters, snack bars, or cafeteria serving counters) and baking
    • occupations that involve operating, setting up, adjusting, cleaning, oiling, or repairing power-driven food slicers and grinders, food choppers and cutters, and bakery-type mixers
    • work in freezers and meat coolers and all work in the preparation of meats for sale (except wrapping, sealing, labeling, weighing, pricing, and stocking when performed in other areas)
    • loading and unloading goods to and from trucks, railroad cars, or conveyors
    • all occupations in warehouses except office and clerical work

Permitted employment of 14 and 15-year-olds. Permitted occupations for minors under 16 include:

  • office and clerical work, including the operation of office machines.
  • cashiering, selling, modeling, artwork, work in advertising departments, window trimming, and comparative shopping
  • price marking and tagging by hand or by machine, assembling orders, packing, and shelving
  • bagging and carrying out customers' orders
  • errand and delivery work by foot, bicycle, and public transportation
  • cleanup work, including the use of vacuum cleaners and floor waxers and maintenance of grounds, but not including the use of power-driven mowers or cutters
  • kitchen work and other work involved in preparing and serving food and beverages, including the operation of machines and devices used in the performance of such work, such as, but not limited to, dishwashers, toasters, dumbwaiters, popcorn poppers, milkshake blenders, and coffee grinders
  • work in connection with cars and trucks if confined to the following:
    • dispensing gasoline and oil
    • courtesy service
    • car cleaning, washing, and polishing
    • other permitted occupations not including work involving the use of pits, racks, lifting apparatus, or involving the inflation of any tire mounted on a rim equipped with a removable retaining ring
  • cleaning vegetables and fruits, and wrapping, sealing, labeling, weighing, pricing, and stocking performed in areas physically separate from areas where meat is prepared for sale and for outside freezers or meat coolers
  • as actors or performers in motion pictures or theatrical productions, or in radio or television productions
  • in the delivery of newspapers to the consumer
  • as homeworkers in the making of evergreen wreaths
  • in certain overseas areas

In addition, the Department of Labor has published final rules establishing and expanding protections for minors under 18 working in certain occupations. The changes include the types of cooking 14 and 15-year-olds are permitted to be employed in and the cleaning and maintaining of cooking devices by minors in certain situations.

The Department of Labor has compliance assistance materials available at the Youth Rules website. You may also contact the Department of Labor's toll-free helpline at 1-866-4USWAGE to obtain this information.

State child labor laws and employment certificates

State laws generally restrict the types of occupations minors may be employed in and their hours of employment. Most states also require employers to obtain employment or age certificates for minors they employ.

By law, regulation, or both, all states list hazardous occupations in which minors below a specific age cannot be employed. Many times there are separate lists for minors under 18, minors under 16, and minors under 14. A substantial number of states prohibit most employment for all minors under age 14. Usual exceptions include newspaper deliveries, family businesses, and agricultural work.

In addition, almost all states restrict the hours of employment for minors under the age of 16. Several also have hours restrictions for 16- and 17-year-olds. Employment may be restricted to a specified number of hours a day or week and to daytime or early evening hours. In addition, permissible hours of work usually are reduced even more for school-aged minors while school is in session. Restrictions may be liberalized for vacation periods.

Tip:  State child labor law can be detailed and complex. If you should decide to hire a minor, check with your state labor agency about what you should do to comply with the provisions of child labor law, including the following:

  • exemptions from state law coverage

  • hours of work permitted for each age group of minors

  • prohibited employment for each age group of minors

  • special wage requirements for employees who are minors

  • what rest periods are required for employees who are minors

  • posting requirements

  • recordkeeping requirements

Employment certificates

Employers who hire children will be protected against unwitting violations of the federal child labor laws if they have on file an unexpired age/employment certificate issued by their state for any employees who are minors.

Certificates issued by a vast majority of the states are accepted under the FLSA as proof of age, but they are a defense to FLSA child-labor violations only if they show the child to be above the minimum age fixed by federal law for the job in which the child is employed. If a lower age is permitted by state law, a certificate showing that the child is of the required age for state purposes is no protection to the employer under the FLSA.

Example:  Fantastic Foods hires Hope, who is almost 16, to work in a job that state law permits an employee of her age to do. Fantastic Foods has a properly obtained, unexpired employment certificate that proves that Hope is 15, so the store is in compliance with the state's child labor laws.

However, the federal law (FLSA) says that only children 16 and older can perform the work that Hope is doing. The fact that Fantastic Foods complied with state laws and has an employment certificate will not save it from being in violation of the FLSA.

Since each state has its own restrictions on child labor, each state has its own requirements about age/employment certificates.

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