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Get the latest coverage of the 2024 Florida legislative session in Tallahassee from our coverage partners and WUSF.

'We are children': Push to weaken Florida's child labor laws draws ire from opponents

High school senior Auxmary Valdez, 17, worries that if HB 49 passes she might have to work more hours and cut back on school activities. "It's education or money," she said.
Daniel Rivero
/
WLRN
High school senior Auxmary Valdez, 17, worries that if HB 49 passes she might have to work more hours and cut back on school activities. "It's education or money," she said.

The federal government is currently doing more than ten times the enforcement of existing child labor law compared to Florida, even though Florida law is currently more strict than the federal government. Now, some lawmakers want to weaken Florida child labor law.

On a typical night, Auxmary Valdez returns home from a long day of school, soccer practice and work at a tutoring agency at about 10:30pm. Only then is she able to cram on her school work and work on her college applications.

“That’s on top of the clubs that I’m doing, on top of an AP research project that I’m doing that takes a lot of time,” said Valdez, a senior at Mater Lakes Academy in Hialeah, a charter school.

In a text message group with friends, the 17-year old says there’s growing concern about a bill being discussed and considered by the Florida legislature. The bill — HB 49 — would weaken many of Florida’s laws on child labor.

If passed, the bill would allow bosses to ask 16- and 17-year olds to work more than 30 hours a week during the school year, something that is currently illegal under Florida law. If it passes, Valdez fears jobs will simply ask teenagers to work more and more hours — because they can.

READ MORE: Some states Consider Easing Child Labor Law

She fears the bill would lead to some tough choices for teenagers like herself trying to finish high school.

“I would have to find a way to either call off at work or cut back my extracurriculars and lower my chances at college. Like — lower my admissions chances by not being as involved in those clubs,” she said. “In the end, it's education or money. And you do need an education to make money in the future.”

“I don't really appreciate how these representatives are throwing us into corporate America,” added Valdez.

Between 2013 and 2023, the federal government found 752 child labor violations in Florida, involving 614 children, according to federal data reviewed by WLRN. The state did not provide data over the same period of time for state level enforcement.

The largest single child labor case in Florida over the last decade was when the federal government found that Belen Jesuit Preparatory Academy, a prestigious private school in Miami, worked 14- and 15-year old camp counselors more than 40 hours a week.

While the federal government has been actively enforcing labor law, the Florida state government has hardly brought any cases at all. The state dismantled its own Department of Labor in the early 2000s under Governor Jeb Bush.

The Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation, which regulates child labor law, did not respond to various requests for comment over the course of several weeks.

In the last fiscal year, State of Florida regulators brought five child labor enforcement actions against employers, they recently told the Orlando Weekly. Over the same period of time, the federal government brought 56 child labor cases in Florida, according to federal data.

That means the feds are doing more than ten times the enforcement of existing child labor law, even though Florida law is currently more strict than the federal government.

Under federal law, 16- and 17-year olds can work over 30 hours during the school year, and they do not have to take a break every four hours, among other laxer rules compared to Florida state law.

“Florida doesn’t enforce the law, they rely on the feds to do it,” explained Karen Woodall, the executive director of the Florida Center for Fiscal and Economic Policy, an economic research organization.

“This bill is not about children. This bill is about teenagers, they’re 16- and 17-years old, they’re driving cars. They are not children. This is not child labor."
Republican Representative Linda Chaney, the bill's sponsor

Woodall has worked on policy issues on the topic of child labor going back to the 1980s, when the state still had a Department of Labor. Up until this point, Florida has steadily increased child labor protections ever since the 1910s when it became a major political issue. The state has long taken pride in having stricter child labor laws than the federal government, she said, but now Florida could move backwards.

“The answer would be that we need to have stronger enforcement – not that we need to go ahead and roll the law back,” said Woodall, referring to child labor laws. “It’s a statement to the [teenage] workers that make this state run that they are not a priority.”

Bill sponsor says regulations are the problem

For Republican Representative Linda Chaney, from the Tampa Bay area, government regulations are the source of the problem for working teenagers, not a solution.

Chaney is the sponsor of the bill. Chaney did not respond to requests for comment for this story.

“These restrictions discourage employers from hiring. This bill gets government out of their way to choose the path that’s best for them and their families. HB 49 creates opportunity for families to empower individuals based on their individual needs,” Chaney said at a Florida House committee in January. “I think the guardrails are that of the free marketplace.”

In her comments, she rejected the overall premise of most of the criticism waged against her proposal.

“This bill is not about children. This bill is about teenagers, they’re 16- and 17-years old, they’re driving cars. They are not children. This is not child labor,” said Chaney.

This is not accurate. Many workplaces in Florida are required by law to have a poster that says “Child Labor Laws” and lists state and federal child labor laws.

The bill would delete major sections listed on that poster.

Many workplaces in Florida are required to display this poster listing state and federal child labor laws. HB 49 would delete several sections of Florida law, effectively weakening child labor protections in the state. This poster is displayed at the WLRN studios in downtown Miami.
Daniel Rivero
/
WLRN
Many workplaces in Florida are required to display this poster listing state and federal child labor laws. HB 49 would delete several sections of Florida law, effectively weakening child labor protections in the state. This poster is displayed at the WLRN studios in downtown Miami.

By doing so, the proposal would remove some state protections and bring Florida more in line with federal law, which is less restrictive.

End of breaks welcomed by industry association

The Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association, a group that represents the restaurant and hotel industry, strongly supports the bill. The bill would also do away with a provision requiring 16- and 17- year olds to get a 30 minute break after every four hours they work.

Lobbyist Samantha Padgett of the association spoke at the January committee, and she said jobs should not be required to offer 16- and 17-year olds breaks every four hours “because breaks often fall in the middle of a rush period.”

She said one restaurant owner who is a member of the association claimed that a 16-year-old who starts working at 4 p.m. would be required to take a break at 8 p.m., in the middle of a dinnertime rush, something that causes disruption.

“Several members shared that the timing does not work well given the particulars of the restaurant industry, and actually serves to put additional pressures on those workers who are above 16 and 17,” said Padgett.

Ellen Baker teaches at a high school in Palm Beach County, and she is very alarmed at the bill becoming law. Working kids already fall asleep in her classroom, she said.

Baker worries some kids will drop out if they can work full-time hours to support their families while school is in session, something that is currently illegal under Florida law, but allowed under federal law. The problem is, she said, kids like money. They don’t always like school.

“I don't really appreciate how these representatives are throwing us into corporate America... Until we get the right to vote, we are children. It is child labor.”
Auxmary Valdez

“You can make more money – but it’s short sighted,” she said. “Because if you’re gonna drop out, your income is not gonna increase later on.”

Baker points out that a staff analysis of the bill says that it will lead to more teenagers joining the workforce. But it also acknowledges that the bill may result in those teenagers being less educated and acquiring fewer skills, and having less health insurance coverage in the long term.

A staff analysis is a neutral breakdown of the impact of the proposed law by employees of the Florida House.

“I see sports being impacted. I see extracurricular activities, theater, band, clubs, [Reserve Officers' Training Corps] – all these extracurricular activities that are part of being in high school. They are part of being a kid. I think they’re gonna be impacted," said Baker.

For Auxmary Valdez, the whole discussion about rolling back child labor laws is absurd.

She’s worried future high schoolers will be pressured by jobs to work more hours, and that they will mess up their futures because of that tough choice. Some of her friends might decide they need to work more hours to help support their families, she said.

The temptation to work more and study less would be real, she said, but education is key.

“Until we get the right to vote, we are children,” said Valdez. “It is child labor.”

Copyright 2024 WLRN 91.3 FM. To see more, visit WLRN 91.3 FM.

Daniel Rivero is a reporter and producer for WLRN, covering Latino and criminal justice issues. Before joining the team, he was an investigative reporter and producer on the television series "The Naked Truth," and a digital reporter for Fusion.
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