The flags of Arkansas and the United States fly in front of the Arkansas State Capitol in Little Rock. (Canva photo)
LITTLE ROCK, Arkansas – A proposed Arkansas law that would remove the requirement for children under 16 to prove their age to get a job will head to Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ desk for approval.
House Bill 1410, or the Youth Hiring Act, would delete the portion of existing law that requires an employment certificate “accessible to the Division of Labor and the Division of Elementary and Secondary Education, or local school officials” before a company can hire a child under 16 years of age.
State law currently prohibits children under 16 from working more than eight hours a day, more than six days a week and more than 48 hours per week. Opponents of House Bill 1410 have expressed concerns it will open the door to violations of these child labor requirements and put children at risk of human trafficking.
Sanders has said some of her administration’s goals are to fight crime and protect children from harm. She signed an executive order Feb. 14 “to develop an integrated approach” to preventing human trafficking.
“Arkansas lacks a consistent, uniform screening and identification process of human trafficking, which has resulted in underreporting of this horrendous criminal action,” the order states.
Sanders plans to sign House Bill 1410, her spokeswoman Alexa Henning said in a Thursday email.
“The governor believes protecting kids is most important, but doing so with arbitrary burdens on parents to get permission from the government for their child to get a job is burdensome and obsolete,” Henning said. “All child labor laws will still apply and we expect businesses to comply just as they are required to do now.”
We’ve built a generation that says, ‘Roman, you should depend on your government to take care of you. Just stay at home and work on video games.
– State Sen. Tyler Dees
Employment certificates for these children currently require proof of the child’s age, a description of the work and work schedule and a parent or legal guardian’s written consent.
Eliminating this requirement would “restore decision-making to parents concerning their children,” the bill states. Rep. Rebecca Burkes, R-Lowell, the bill’s primary sponsor, repeated this on the House floor Feb. 22.
Rep. Andrew Collins, D-Little Rock, took issue with this clause.
“Parents have to sign off [on the permit] under the current law,” he said. “If this passes, the parents won’t have to sign off, and I think that’s a pretty important distinction.”
The bill passed the House that day and the Senate on Thursday. No Democrats in either chamber voted for the bill, while some Republicans in both chambers voted against it.
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House Bill 1410 goes to Sanders’ desk less than two weeks after the U.S. Department of Labor announced it had fined Packers Sanitation Services Inc. for violating child labor laws at 13 plants in eight states, including Arkansas. The company paid $1.5 million in civil penalties for making children as young as 13 work in dangerous conditions.
In Arkansas, Packers paid a fine of $60,552 for using four minors at a George’s Inc. plant in Batesville and $90,828 for using six minors at a Tyson Foods facility in Green Forest.
Laura Kellams, the Northwest Arkansas director with Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families, brought up the Packers plants while speaking against House Bill 1410 before the Senate Public Health, Welfare and Labor Committee on Wednesday. She said she does not oppose minors having jobs, and she worked at the Green Forest chicken plant as a teenager.
She mentioned that Republican Sen. Bryan King, a member of the committee, lives in Green Forest. King and four other members voted to advance the bill to the Senate.
Legislators should not portray work permits for minors under 16 as overly bureaucratic or “too much to ask of any employer” when they cost nothing and take only a few days to be approved by the Department of Labor, Kellams said.
“This is not red tape, so who is it a burden to?” she said. “It’s a burden to companies who are illegally hiring minors beyond the allowable hours and in conditions that aren’t allowed.”
Ongoing child safety debate
Sanders and several Republican legislators have said repeatedly this legislative session that protecting children should be a high priority for the government.
Some of the bills introduced and advanced with this stated goal have attempted to require a person’s gender assigned at birth to determine where they use the restroom at school or in public, classify gender-affirming health care for transgender youth as potential medical malpractice, restrict where drag shows can be performed and open the door for librarians to be charged with a felony for distributing content that parents and elected officials consider obscene.
Activists have repeatedly said these bills target the LGBTQ community and transgender Arkansans in particular. On Wednesday, Senate Democrats spoke against Senate Bill 270, which would make it a felony for adults to remain in bathrooms that do not align with their biological sex if children are present. Republicans claimed the bill would protect children’s privacy. The bill was pulled down for amendments and did not receive a vote.
Sen. Tyler Dees, R-Siloam Springs, said Thursday that he saw “irony” in his Democratic colleagues’ opposition to House Bill 1410 with the goal of protecting children when they also opposed Senate Bill 270.
“We talked about the ‘inconvenience’ of making sure people go to the right bathroom with the protection of children in mind,” Dees said. “I don’t believe those [ideas] balance very well. I don’t believe it fits well with that narrative.”
However, Rep. Charlene Fite, R-Van Buren, alluded to these bills on the House floor Feb. 22 to explain her opposition to House Bill 1410.
“In this body, we respect families and their decisions, but we also protect children,” she said.
Kellams told the Senate committee on Wednesday that the bill would make immigrant children who work to support their families more vulnerable to bad outcomes. Fite agreed, saying she used to teach students who were learning English as a second language, and she knew that some of them had jobs.
“That will eventually hurt not only the student but [eventually] their family, as their overall earnings are lowered for a lifetime by not being there to do their homework and by missing additional school time,” she said.
Fite was one of 15 House Republicans to vote against the bill, while 12 did not vote and one voted present. The remaining 54 House Republicans voted to send the bill to the Senate.
All but one of the 18 House Democrats voted against the bill while the other did not vote.
On the Senate side, Sen. Terry Rice, R-Waldron, said he supported House Bill 1410 because he believes children have been protected “to a deficit.”
“They cannot function, they cannot communicate, they cannot do a lot of things that we did at 11 years old,” Rice said. “I don’t want them being abused, but at 14 and 15, if they want to work, that’s the best training they will get.”
Sen. Mark Johnson, R-Ferndale, was one of the few Senate Republicans to oppose the bill, mentioning the Packers Sanitation Services Inc. violations as a reason.
“This permit is just one more little safeguard that maybe we should leave in place,” Johnson said. “I encourage 14- and 15-year-olds to have initiative and seek employment. I certainly think the parents need to know about it … I’m just extra careful when I’m dealing with children, so I’m going to be voting against [the bill].”
Johnson reminded his colleagues that they approved a bill less than an hour earlier regarding who victims of human trafficking can challenge in court.
Senate Bill 282, sponsored by Sen. Missy Irvin, R-Mountain View, would allow victims to take civil action against anyone who was aware of, assisted or benefited from the trafficking. The bill passed with no opposition and will be considered by the House.
Irvin chairs the Senate Public Health committee and voted against House Bill 1410 both Wednesday and Thursday. She said preventing human trafficking is important to her because a friend of hers experienced and survived it.
Sen. Breanne Davis, R-Russellville, joined Irvin, Johnson and all six Senate Democrats in voting against the bill. King was absent and Sen. Jonathan Dismang (R-Beebe) voted present. All 24 other Senate Republicans voted for the bill.
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The value of work
Some senators who supported House Bill 1410 said they had jobs as teenagers. Sen. Clint Penzo, R-Springdale, the bill’s Senate sponsor, said he worked for his father’s construction company.
“I worked all through school, and I think we need to see more of that in our society,” Penzo said.
Dees’ 13-year-old son was present in the Senate gallery Thursday, and Dees said he hopes his son learns sooner than later how to work to support a family someday.
Sen. Gary Stubblefield, R-Branch, who has sponsored some of this year’s bills pertaining to transgender individuals, said he and members of his generation grew up working on farms as young as 10 years old.
“All these people that I grew up with that learned to work how I learned to work — they all grew up to be outstanding community leaders, bankers, lawyers, successful people, pillars of the community,” Stubblefield said.
Senate Minority Whip Linda Chesterfield, D-Little Rock, had a different perspective about working at a young age.
“I know, having started work at the age of seven, that it’s not fun,” she said. “I believe children should be able to enjoy their youth and I don’t envy them that time. I do believe in hard work. We worked hard in my family. Everybody had to work hard and contribute to the family so that we could eat and pay the bills.”
Chesterfield said she did not want to see Arkansas “turning back the clock” on child labor laws that have been in place for about a century.
Sen. Fredrick Love, D-Mabelvale, a member of the Senate Public Health committee, joined Irvin in voting against House Bill 1410 on Wednesday.
“There are kids that have no parents,” he said Thursday. “We have to protect our kids at all costs, so I would implore you to protect our kids today, to make sure that these safeguards stay in place.”
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