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Legislature OKs bill making it easier to employ 14- and 15-year-olds

The bill would end the requirement for school officials to approve children under 16 working.

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With 75 votes in favor and 17 against, the Alabama House gave final passage to SB53 on Tuesday. Currently school administrators or counselors have to certify that 14- and 15-year-old children have “satisfactory grades and attendance” on an eligibility to work form before they are allowed to work. SB53 would remove that requirement. 

Rep. Susan DuBose, R-Hoover, framed the bill as a parental rights issue. She said that the bill will allow parents to “decide if they see fit for their child to work,” instead of school administrators or principals.

DuBose and other representatives also focused on the bill’s potential impacts on productivity and workforce development.

“They could go home from school and sit on their phone for three hours, and that’s like three hours wasted,” DuBose said. “Or they could go down the street and work in a restaurant.”

When Rep. Napoleon Bracy, D-Prichard, spoke, he was somewhat skeptical of the bill despite his childhood experience as a Burger King employee.

“I don’t want to always undo something if it was a reason for it,” he said. Comparing the eligibility to work form to academic requirements student-athletes must meet, Bracy explained that “we try to make sure that kids meet certain standards.”

Rep. Laura Hall, D-Birmingham, asked why the legislation seemed to imply that children failing to meet schoolwork requirements didn’t matter while many in the state have tried to prioritize education and workforce development.

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On the other hand, Rep. Berry Forte, D-Barbour, talked about regularly seeing kids driving tractors and compared the bill to his childhood experience growing up on a farm. “Wasn’t no such thing as child labor back in the day,” Forte said.

DuBose objected to Forte’s use of the term child labor because it “has sort of a bad connotation,” but quipped that Alabama might “need to put more kids on a farm.”

Child labor, including several prominent examples in Alabama, has made the news repeatedly in recent years. On May 6, New York Times reporter Hannah Dreier won the 2024 Pulitzer for Investigative Reporting for her work covering the topic.

Dreier reported on several examples of child labor in the state of Alabama, including children in middle school making Fruit of the Loom socks and the tragic case of Juan Mauricio Ortiz, a 15-year-old who died in 2019 after falling fifty feet while working for an Alabama roofing company.

And in 2022, a Reuters investigation revealed that several Hyundai’s Alabama-based suppliers regularly employed children as young as 12.

A bill that would increase penalties for employing child labor, SB119, was delivered to Gov. Kay Ivey on May 2 but has not been signed yet.

If SB53 is signed by Gov. Kay Ivey, 14- and 15-year-olds will still only be able to work a maximum of 3 hours a school day, 18 hours a school week, and 40 hours a non-school week. They will also still be forbidden from working in several dangerous occupations and for any businesses that serve alcohol.

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During the debate over the bill, Rep. Brett Easterbrook, R-Fruitdale, questioned some of these restrictions, saying the idea his son shouldn’t be working on a scaffold at 16 years old “makes no sense.”

Easterbrook said that taking children out of the workforce resulted in “rebellious kids who know nothing.” “I’m completely in favor and I wish [the bill] went even further,” he said.

According to a report from the Economic Policy Institute, if SB53 is signed into law, Alabama would join Arkansas and Iowa, state that have also rolled back work permit requirements for underage workers.

Chance Phillips is a reporting intern at the Alabama Political Reporter. You can reach him at [email protected].

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