OKLAHOMA CITY (KFOR) – Legislators discussed potentially weakening the state’s child labor laws at a committee hearing Tuesday in response to Oklahoma’s workforce shortage. Labor Commissioner Leslie Osborn made the rounds getting the word out on that not being the solution.
“If we’re doing things that are illegal, putting unconstitutional laws in place just so we can get a snapshot on a Fox News interview then damn it, you shouldn’t be here,” said Osborn.
Tuesday during a committee hearing on Children, Youth, and Family Services Representative Judd Strom wanted to discuss the potential for weakening child labor laws.
Earlier this year it came out that Oklahoma is seeing a massive workforce shortage. Many legislators have discussed solving the issue by letting children ages 14 to 17 years old work longer hours and lightening the restrictions surrounding overall child labor laws.
“And I don’t think the answer to filling our workforce shortage is to have our children working more,” said Osborn. “There are better pools of people to choose from like those previously incarcerated, veterans, and immigrants.”
Osborn said that legislators have brought up two states that they intend to copy similar bills passed there surrounding child labor. The two states are Iowa and Arkansas.
“What we are starting to see from those states and others is that the children are basically being maimed or injured heinously and so that is the kind of thing that happens if we lighten these laws,” said Osburn. “We lose the spotlight and these horrible things start happening.”
During the hearing, Representative Strom had someone from the cattle industry speak in favor of discussing exemptions in the agriculture industry. “You have a lot of family farms throughout the state that have their sons and daughters working. These aren’t necessarily massive industries and factories they are family farms.”
Federal law allows children 12 and older to work on farms for any amount of time outside of school hours, with parental permission. Farm workers over 16 can work at dangerous heights or operate heavy machinery, hazardous tasks reserved for adult workers in other industries.
“We’re not saying that kids shouldn’t work and have good work ethic but just not extreme hours and hazardous situations,” said Osburn. “Often what we see at the Capitol are mundane bills, clean-up bills extending sunset laws and such, but in a state with high poverty and low educational attainment, we must not let these types of bills slip through under the radar.”
However, the labor department has a list of dangerous jobs that are off-limits for those under 18 that would cause violations to occur such as meat processing and slicing, power-driven saws, power-driven woodworking machinery, roofing jobs, etc.
Under the federal Fair Labor Standards Act, students that age can only work until 7 p.m. during the school year. Congress passed the law in 1938 to stop children from being exposed to dangerous conditions and abusive practices in mines, factories, farms, and street trades.
Republican Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders signed a law in March eliminating permits that required employers to verify a child’s age and a parent’s consent. Without work permit requirements, companies caught violating child labor laws can more easily claim ignorance.
Iowa Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds signed a law last year allowing teens aged 16 and 17 to work unsupervised in childcare centers. The state Legislature approved a bill this summer to allow teens of that age to serve alcohol in restaurants.
“We are seeing more and more around the nation of these violations occurring,” said Osborn.
According to the U.S. Department of Labor, 2023 saw nearly double the number of children who were the subject of a labor violation than the year previous.
“Federally too, this would be unconstitutional if it was implemented,” said Osborn.
She told KFOR that she had already warned Attorney General Getner Drummond on the issue.
“We will have to prepare for either many lawsuits or the state seeing fines. The taxpayers will be the ones that will foot the bill for essentially an illegal move,” said Osborn.
Osborn said that there are many other paths to solving the workforce shortage.
“We can start looking at mothers who could work child care assistance, felons or those out of jail with misdemeanors, immigrants who don’t have their I.D. yet we could bring in incentives for them and employers,” said Osborn.
Twenty-four children died from work injuries in 2021, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Around half of deadly work incidents happened on farms, according to a report from the Government Accountability Office covering child deaths between 2003 and 2016.
The number of violations reported only continues to increase as each year passes according to the latest data from the Labor Department.