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Republicans in several states try to make child labor great again

The Labor Department’s top attorney is concerned about efforts to weaken child labor laws. There are plenty of such bills to worry about.


In the wake of the 2010 midterm elections, when so-called tea party Republicans were riding high, a surprising number of GOP officials took aim at an unexpected target: child labor laws. It might’ve seemed as if a decades-old national consensus had taken root, but many Republicans were eager for a new public conversation on the topic.

Sen. Mike Lee of Utah, for example, suggested child labor laws might not be constitutional. Paul LePage, then the governor of Maine, called for rolling back his state’s restrictions on children in the workplace. Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa even argued that new child labor laws might help combat childhood obesity.

Ahead of his ill-fated 2012 presidential campaign, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich went so far as to argue that existing child labor laws were, as he put it in 2011, “truly stupid.”

In time, the issue largely faded from the Republican Party’s to-do list, but it appears to be making a comeback. The Washington Post reported yesterday that Seema Nanda, the Labor Department’s top attorney, called efforts to weaken child-worker protections “irresponsible,” as there are plenty of reasons for her to be concerned:

Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders, a rising Republican star, on Tuesday signed legislation into law that eliminated age verification requirements for youth workers younger than 16 years old. A similar proposal is advancing in Missouri. Iowa legislators are considering a bill that would allow 14- and 15-year-olds to work certain jobs in meatpacking plants and shield businesses from civil liability if a child laborer is sickened, injured or killed on the job. A bill in Minnesota would permit 16- and 17-year-olds to work construction jobs.

The New Republic this week reported on a related effort in Ohio, which has already passed one chamber in the state legislature, and newly adopted policies in New Hampshire.

As my MSNBC colleague Ja’han Jones explained, the timing of these efforts could be better: The new state law in Arkansas, for example, “follows a stunning revelation from the Labor Department that one of the world’s largest food sanitation companies, Packers Sanitation Services Inc., had employed at least 102 children — some as young as 13 — to work hazardous factory jobs in eight states. Some worked overnight shifts using ‘caustic chemicals to clean razor-sharp saws,’ the Labor Department said.”

Despite this, policymakers in a surprising number of states are apparently trying to make child labor great again.