For nearly a hundred years, the U.S. has restricted how and when a minor’s labor can be used. Both state and federal laws protect workers under 18, with special protections for workers under 16.
Below, we’ll dig into the federal protections that apply to all minors in the U.S., how things might differ on the state level, and what these laws mean for specific age groups.
What is the Fair Labor Standards Act?
The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) of 1938 is a federal law that establishes minimum wage, overtime pay, recordkeeping requirements, and youth employment standards (ie, limits on child labor). It covers nearly all workplaces, private and public.
What Are the Child Labor Provisions of the FLSA?
Although many parts of the FLSA apply to all U.S. workers, the restrictions that apply specifically to minors under 18 include:
- Sets 14 as the minimum age for most work
- Restricts the hours and employment options for children ages 14-15
- Prohibits minors ages 16-17 from work determined to be too dangerous
It also allows employers to pay a “youth minimum wage” (currently $4.25/hr) to any employee under the age of 20 during their first 90 consecutive days of employment. After that, youth need to be paid minimum wage, but they’re subject to the youth minimum every time they change jobs.
When did Child Labor Laws Start?
The effort to reform or eliminate child labor really began in the U.S. around 1900. That year, 18% of all American workers were under 16-years-old. Child labor laws faced a lot of resistance. Laws passed in 1916 and 1918 were quickly declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court, and a constitutional amendment allowing similar laws passed in 1924, but states refused to ratify it into law.
The FLSA was passed as part of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal. It was part of an effort to bring the country out of the Great Depression, and child labor provisions passed because they freed up more jobs for adult workers.
How Do Minor Labor Laws Vary by State?
States have their own minor labor laws that may be stricter than federal regulations. In cases where state and federal laws disagree, the law that provides greater protection to a child should be followed.
What is the Minimum Working Age Per State?
For most work, the Fair Labor Standards Act sets the federal minimum working age to 14.
However, the FLSA allows children 13 and younger to perform some work, including:
- Entertainment work like acting or performing
- Working for their parents in non-hazardous occupations
- Newspaper delivery
- “Young entrepreneur” jobs like lawnmowing or babysitting on a casual basis
For non-hazardous agricultural work, the FLSA allows children as young as 10 and 11 to work under very restricted conditions: on local farms near their permanent residence, with parental consent, and during harvest season only.
Some states allow for even younger workers in agriculture. In Utah, there’s no minimum age as long as the parents consent.
Does the Law Require Work Permits or Proof of Age for Child Labor?
Federal law doesn’t require any particular documentation for child labor, but many states do.
Age Certification, which is an official proof of age document for your employer, is required for all minors in 10 states, including Georgia, Louisiana, and North Carolina. It’s required for 26 other states under specific circumstances (like age or occupation).
Employment Certificates, often referred to as work permits, are required for all minors in Florida, South Carolina, Texas, and Utah. All other states – except 6 who don’t issue work permits at all – require one under specific conditions.
How Many Hours Can a 15-year-old Work?
The FLSA limits the number of hours and the times of day that 14- and 15-year-old minors can log. In non-agricultural jobs, those limits are:
- Outside of school hours (unless you’ve graduated high school, take part in certain work-study programs, or been excused/had attendance waived by certain authorities)
- No more than 3 hours per school day and 8 hours per non-school day
- No more than 18 hours a week while school is in session, or 40 hours when it’s not
- No night shifts, ie, hours before 7am or after 7pm (9pm in the summer, June 1 – Labor Day)
Some states impose more restrictions of a similar nature or alter the rules for certain jobs. Roughly half of states introduce limits for agricultural work, as well. Some states have slightly different definitions of when school is in session or when summer rules start and end.
Federal law doesn’t limit the number of days per week, but more than a third of states do (usually to 6 days a week).
More than half of states have special break requirements for minors, which may be even more liberal for those under 16.
What Jobs Can a 15-year-old Get?
Federal law outlines specific jobs, outside of agriculture, that 14- and 15-year-olds are allowed to hold. Any job that’s not on the list is prohibited. The list includes:
- Most office and retail jobs (ie, cashiering, stocking shelves, bagging groceries)
- Jobs in most food service establishments, including
- Cleaning of cooking equipment and surfaces (with limitations)
- Limited kitchen work involving the preparation of food and beverages
- Limited cooking duties (for example, no open flames)
- Intellectual or artistically creative occupations (ie, teacher, musician, artist, performer)
- Lifeguard or swim instructor jobs at traditional swimming pools and water amusement parks, if properly certified (for 15-year-olds ONLY)
How Many Hours Can a 16-year-old Work?
Federal law places no limits on working hours for 16- or 17-year-olds. But almost half of all states restrict the number of working hours for 16-year-olds and/or 17-year-olds, inside or outside agriculture. And almost a third of states prohibit night work for this age group in some way.
Roughly half of states without break-time rules for adults make exceptions for all minors. Others have break-time rules for adults but provide more liberal guidelines for minors.
What Jobs Can a 16-year-old Get?
By federal law, 16- and 17-year-olds can hold any job that isn’t considered too dangerous. The list of prohibited jobs include:
- Storing or manufacturing explosives
- Driving or working as an outside helper on a motor vehicle
- Coal mining or other mining
- Logging, sawmilling, or timber tract operations
- Fighting or preventing forest fires
- Working in forestry services
- Operating various types of specified heavy machinery
- Slaughtering or rendering poultry
- Jobs with exposure to ionizing radiation
- Tile, brick, and related product manufacturing
- Work on or near a roof
- Trenching and excavating
Some states restrict this further.
OSHA Protections for Minor Labor
In addition to laws that specifically address child labor, adult labor regulations apply to children when no specific law for minors exists. For example, the Occupational Safety and Health Act applies to all workers, regardless of age.
Even though minors are restricted from certain hazardous work, many OSHA standards still apply: the general duty clause, fire prevention standards, slip and fall standards, and more. Minors, like all workers, need a general introduction to OSHA, their rights and responsibilities as workers, and training in how to recognize workplace hazards. Online training can be a great way to start the training process.
We’ve been an OSHA-authorized online training provider for over 20 years. We offer OSHA 10 and OSHA 30 training, as well as HazCom and a library of training on specific OSHA standards. If you’re looking to train your entire workforce, check out our business solutions!