The Labor Department plans to unwind decades-old youth labor protections by allowing teenagers to work longer hours under some of the nation’s most hazardous workplace conditions, sources familiar with the situation told Bloomberg Law.
The DOL will propose relaxing current rules—known as Hazardous Occupations Orders (HOs)—that prohibit 16- and 17-year-old apprentices and student learners from receiving extended, supervised training in certain dangerous jobs, said the two sources. 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.
The DOL is expecting to propose an update to the hazardous occupations provisions of the Fair Labor Standards Act by October, according to a copy of the administration’s regulatory agenda notice reviewed by Bloomberg Law. The administration plans to unveil the notice as part of a May 9 release of the spring agenda listing all regulatory and deregulatory actions anticipated over the next 12 months.
A former WHD senior official who spent 20 years enforcing child labor law didn’t mince words when learning of the agency’s rulemaking intentions.
“When you find 16-year-olds running a meat slicer or a mini grinder or a trash compactor, we know kids are severely injured in those circumstances,” Michael Hancock, who left the WHD in 2015 to represent workers at the plaintiff firm Cohen Milstein in New York, told Bloomberg Law. “That’s why the laws exist in the first place.”
“Now we’re saying, ‘We’re going to open those hazards up to kids; we hope that the employer is going to follow the law to a T and make sure the kid is being closely supervised,’” added Hancock, who worked in both Republican and Democratic administrations. “I think that stretches credulity to think that’s how it’s actually going to work.”
Current law grants 16- to 17-year-old apprentices and students limited exemptions in seven of the 17 non-agricultural jobs designated by the labor secretary as “particularly hazardous.” Farming work is much more permissive for teens.
The tension between the child safety and workforce development communities on youth labor protections underscores the complex, nuanced debate that the rulemaking is poised to set off. The Child Labor Coalition advocates for policies that protect children and youth from exploitative workplace conditions, including occupational hazards.
Hancock, the former WHD official, questioned the feasibility of tasking the agency’s 900 field investigators with ensuring that teen apprentices and student learners are truly being kept out of harm’s way.
“If you’re saying you can do this because there’s going to be close and constant supervision, how do you enforce that? Are you going to have cameras in the workplace?” Hancock asked.
Some of his concerns could be alleviated depending on the details included in the agency’s eventual proposal. Regardless, though, an attempt to roll back these protections will inherently create controversy.
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