Senate committee to vote on eliminating work permits for younger teens

A Senate committee will vote Friday on legislation that would end required work permits for younger teenagers — a measure favored by some business groups as well as a right-wing think tank and opposed by worker safety advocates.

SB-436, introduced Sept. 20 by Sen. Cory Tomczyk (R-Mosinee), would abolish work permits currently required for 14- and 15-year-olds to accept a job. The Senate Committee on Labor, Regulatory Reform, Veterans and Military Affairs is to vote on the bill by paper ballot Friday. The bill’s Assembly companion is AB-442.

“If a child at the age of 14 or 15 would like to begin working, even for a few hours a week, to make a little money, and begin to understand how the world works, the government should not stand in the way of that,” Tomczyk said at a public hearing Oct. 5.

Opposing the legislation, Wisconsin AFL-CIO President Stephanie Bloomingdale warned that eliminating children’s work permits would result in “removing parents of their right to sign off on a child’s work permit and therefore eliminating the vital role moms and dads play in setting priorities for and ensuring the safety of their children.”

A Department of Workforce Development graphic showing the process for obtaining a work permit online for 14- and 15-year-olds, who are required to have one. (DWD graphic)

Work permits are issued after a teen receives a job offer. Parents must sign them and the Department of Workforce Development (DWD) is able to issue them online. A child can begin working under the permit as soon as the parent receives a confirmation email that the permit application has been processed.

DWD spokesman John Dipko told the Wisconsin Examiner that most denials occur when the online site “rejects the permit application because the work is prohibited, the minor isn’t old enough [or for] other reasons that will not allow the request to be submitted successfully.” 

Dipko said that those denials create no record and don’t provide data about how many permit applications are rejected or reasons for them.

He said about 766 permits through the online site, which started earlier this year, had been rejected by DWD staff after the site had accepted the applications. He said the “common reasons” for those rejections included duplicate applications, information being entered in the wrong fields on the form or because the application was for a teen who was underage. 

Brian Sikma of the Opportunity Solutions Project stated at the hearing that the bill would “update state law so that parents, not schools and bureaucracy, have the final say when it comes to family decisions like finding that first job and earning that first paycheck.”

The Opportunity Solutions Project is the lobbying arm of the Florida-based Foundation for Government Accountability, which “got national attention for its successful drive to relax child labor restrictions in Iowa and Arkansas,” Wisconsin Watch reported in a July article on the organization and its support for policies to reduce the social safety net.

None of the proponents for the measure presented data indicating that DWD or other agencies were refusing to grant work permits that parents had authorized.

Proponents of the bill say that it would not repeal safety standards governing 14- and 15-year-old workers and would not change state laws that keep them from taking certain jobs considered dangerous.  

The permit fees generate $144,000 a year at DWD, which goes toward covering the cost of enforcing state child labor laws. Ending the permit requirement “will also eliminate funds for the enforcement of child labor regulations across the state,” Bloomingdale testified.

Proponents observed that the Legislature and then-Gov. Scott Walker eliminated work permits for 16- and 17-year-old teens in 2017. 

Bloomingdale argued that repeal “was unconscionable,” and that the number of older teens “harmed at work and working in hazardous and/or illegal jobs for their age” has been increasing. She cited U.S. Labor Department data showing that nationally the number of minors employed in violation of child labor laws rose 37% in 2022 from 2021, and 283% from 2015.

In September, Florence Hardwoods, a Florence County sawmill, agreed to pay $190,696 following an investigation by the U.S. Labor Department and the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration into the death of a 16-year-old in July two days after he suffered severe injuries in a sawmill accident. 

The investigation found that in addition, three 15- and 16-year-olds had been injured in separate incidents in 2021, 2022 and 2023 at the sawmill. 

Nine teenagers, ages 14 to 17, had worked at the mill, illegally operating automated machinery to cut and process lumber, OSHA reported, although federal law defines that work as hazardous for people under the age of 18. Seven 14- and 15-year-olds illegally worked outside legally permitted hours, OSHA reported.

Under a federal court order, Florence Hardwoods agreed to post labels and signs warning that children under 18 cannot use dangerous equipment or enter the company’s sawmill and planer buildings. The company also agreed not to hire workers under age 16 and to comply with requirements for apprentices and student workers for any 16- or 17-year-old employees.

Along with the Opportunity Solutions Project, the work permit bill is supported by the National Federation of Independent Business and Wisconsin Independent Businesses, according to filings with the Wisconsin Ethics Commission. 

In addition to the Wisconsin AFL-CIO, the bill is opposed by the Wisconsin Education Association Council. 

The Wisconsin Restaurant Association has also not endorsed the bill, although it has not registered opposition, either. 

At the Oct. 5 hearing, Susan Quam, the restaurant association’s executive vice president, testified that while the association “supports legislation that streamlines employee hiring practices and we supported the removal of requiring work permits for 16-17 year-old a few years ago,” it had reservations about the new bill.

Federal labor law “has many more restrictions on the employment of 14-15 year-olds, specifically on the hours and days they can work and what equipment they can use, compared to 16-17 year-olds,” Quam said. 

When they apply for a work permit, 14- and 15-year-olds and their parents get documentation about state and federal child labor laws, Quam said, including information on permitted work hours and equipment they are not permitted to operate. Leaving that information out “will put our members at risk when hiring those teens,” she stated.

Quam told lawmakers the restaurant association favored amending the bill to require a new state form that would outline state and federal restrictions for 14-year-old workers. 

Parents or guardians and their teens would be “required to sign off on their acknowledgement of the applicable laws,” she said, and employers would keep the form on file as proof that teens and their parents were informed of work restrictions in the event of a federal or state investigation.

Such an amendment has not been introduced as of Thursday. 



originally published at https%3A%2F%2Fwisconsinexaminer.com%2F2023%2F10%2F13%2Fsenate-committee-to-vote-on-eliminating-work-permits-for-younger-teens%2F by Erik Gunn

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