The Labor Department wants to weaken decades of labor protections for young workers with a plan to let teens pull longer shifts in hazardous workplaces, complete with chainsaws, trash compactors, and other heavy machinery that can pulverize your arm into a meaty pulp.
Bloomberg Law reports that the proposal would get rid of limits that prohibit 16- and 17-year-olds from undergoing extended training in dangerous working conditions. Currently, that kind of training is limited to less than an hour a day.
From Bloomberg Law (emphasis mine):
The administration plans to frame this as a rule to facilitate closely supervised training that actually enhances safety by allowing youth more practice on the machinery they can operate full time at 18. Further, Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta’s ability to navigate the politically fraught terrain of easing child labor protections may be smoothed with the support of at least one Senate Democrat.
This issue has hardly been at the top of the business community’s DOL regulatory wish list. But that doesn’t mean employers wouldn’t like to see the department update the rules to reflect modern advances that they say make the equipment safer for minors, said Alfred Robinson, a management-side attorney with Ogletree Deakins in Washington who represents the Associated General Contractors.
Europe has a robust and successful model of apprenticeship in place, but it costs a lot of money. That’s because it’s seen as a longterm investment in the workforce, not a short-term fix to pesky regulations getting in the way of having more bodies on a factory floor. It also involves strong state and labor oversight, as the Atlantic reported back in 2014 when the Obama administration started talking about the issue:
Another challenge, if anything a more difficult one, has to do with the centralization of the German system and the role the state plays in regulating what happens in private companies. What makes dual training work, every manager told us, are the standardized occupational profiles, or curricula, developed by the federal government in collaboration with employers, educators, and union representatives. Every young machinist training anywhere in Germany learns the same skills in the same order on the same timetable as every other machinist. This is good for apprentices: It guarantees high-quality programs where trainees learn more than one company’s methods, making it possible for those who wish to switch jobs later on. But it’s hard to imagine this level of state control or business-labor cooperation in the U.S.
As you might have guessed, chainsaw teens are going to be a tough sell for the labor advocates who have spent decades working to reduce the number of fatalities and injuries among young people in these workplaces. Similarly, advocates expressed concern that the hands-off approach this administration has taken toward private industry will lead to abuse; with little federal oversight in place, there will be no check on companies that start “pushing lower-paid, younger workers into hazardous jobs and ignoring the tough-to-enforce supervision terms.”
“When I started doing this kind of work 20 years ago, we were losing 70 kids a year at work, and now we are losing usually 20 or less,” Reid Maki, coordinator of the Child Labor Coalition, told Bloomberg Law. “We’ve made substantial progress, and I think that the tightened hazardous occupations rules have played a role in the lowered death tolls for teenage workers.”
A former employee of the DOL’s Wage and Hour Division put it more bluntly:
When you find 16-year-olds running a meat slicer or a mini grinder or a trash compactor, we know kids are severely injured in those circumstances. That’s why the laws exist in the first place.