What are Federal Child Labor Laws?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Federal child labor laws are laws at the national level in the United States regulating the employment of children to reduce risks to younger workers. The goal of these laws is to prevent exploitation of children and to make sure that workers under the age of 18 have access to school, as well as a safe working environment. The Department of Labor is responsible for enforcing such laws, and the bulk of federal child labor laws are located in the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938. Congress has made several amendments to this law to address changes in working environments and social attitudes about labor and employment.

The historic use of child labor is now considered to be unethical.
The historic use of child labor is now considered to be unethical.

Individual states also have their own laws. If federal and state laws appear to be in conflict, generally the law offering more protection is the one people must obey. For example, an individual state may increase the age limit for certain kinds of labor due to concerns about safety. People who suspect violations of labor law can report them to the Department of Labor.

Two key topics are covered under federal child labor laws. One has to do with age limits. Generally, people under age 18 can only work in certain industries, depending on how hazardous they are, with some exceptions. For example, young people can be employed in agricultural work on their own family farm, but might not be able to work on another person's farm. Age limits keep younger workers away from hazardous environments, such as workplaces with heavy equipment or dangerous animals.

Hours are another topic of concern under federal child labor laws. Laws limit the number of hours a week children can work to make sure they stay healthy and are able to attend school. The laws also limit the hours during the day when children can work; for example, children cannot work during school hours while school is in session, or take a night shift. Federal child labor laws also address wages, allowing for a reduced minimum wage for children, and providing measures for overtime pay.

Federal child labor laws do not require work permits for children, but many states do. Under these requirements, before someone under 18 can start a job, that person needs to receive permission from school and parents or guardians to work, and the employer must keep this documentation on file. If someone reports a labor violation, inspectors will want to see this material, along with time cards and other documents. Usually, the investigator will interview employees to discuss working conditions, hours, and other topics.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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