The conservative campaign to rewrite child labor laws

The Foundation for Government Accountability, a Florida-based think tank and lobbying group, drafted state legislation to strip child workplace protections, emails show

Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders (R) speaking in Little Rock on Feb. 7. (Drago Alexander/Pool/ABACA/Shutterstock)
11 min

When Iowa lawmakers voted last week to roll back certain child labor protections, they blended into a growing movement driven largely by a conservative advocacy group.

At 4:52 a.m., Tuesday, the state’s Senate approved a bill to allow children as young as 14 to work night shifts and 15 year-olds on assembly lines. The measure, which still must pass the Iowa House, is among several the Foundation for Government Accountability is maneuvering through state legislatures.

The Florida-based think tank and its lobbying arm, the Opportunity Solutions Project, have found remarkable success among Republicans to relax regulations that prevent children from working long hours in dangerous conditions. And they are gaining traction at a time the Biden administration is scrambling to enforce existing labor protections for children.

The FGA achieved its biggest victory in March, playing a central role in designing a new Arkansas law to eliminate work permits and age verification for workers younger than 16. Its sponsor, state Rep. Rebecca Burkes (R), said in a hearing that the legislation “came to me from the Foundation [for] Government Accountability.”

“As a practical matter, this is likely to make it even harder for the state to enforce our own child labor laws,” said Annie B. Smith, director of the University of Arkansas School of Law’s Human Trafficking Clinic. “Not knowing where young kids are working makes it harder for [state departments] to do proactive investigations and visit workplaces where they know that employment is happening to make sure that kids are safe.”

That law passed so swiftly and was met with such public outcry that Arkansas officials quickly approved a second measure increasing penalties on violators of the child labor codes the state had just weakened.

In Missouri, where another child labor bill has gained significant GOP support, the FGA helped a lawmaker draft and revise the legislation, according to emails obtained by The Washington Post.

The FGA for years has worked systematically to shape policy at the state level, fighting to advance conservative causes such as restricting access to anti-poverty programs and blocking Medicaid expansion.

But in February, the White House announced a crackdown on child labor violators in response to what activists have described as a surge in youths — many of them undocumented immigrants — working at meat packing plants, construction sites, auto factories and other dangerous job sites.

The administration’s top labor lawyer called the proposed state child labor laws “irresponsible,” and said it could make it easier for employers to hire children for dangerous work.

“Federal and state entities should be working together to increase accountability and ramp up enforcement — not make it easier to illegally hire children to do what are often dangerous jobs,” Labor Solicitor Seema Nanda said. “No child should be working in dangerous workplaces in this country, full stop.”

Congress in 1938 passed the Fair Labor Standards Act to stop companies from using cheap child labor to do dangerous work, a practice that exploded during the Great Depression.

But today those rules, which restrict the hours and types of work that can be performed by minors, are not strictly enforced, and the issue has become more polarizing since the pandemic began — when a labor shortage created a huge need for workers and large numbers of undocumented minors entered the United States looking for work.

The Labor Department has seen a 69 percent increase in minors employed in violation of federal law since 2018, officials reported. Between 2018 and 2022, federal regulators opened cases for 4,144 child labor violations covering 15,462 youth workers, according to federal data.

On the surface, the FGA frames its child worker bills as part of a larger debate surrounding parental rights, including in education and child care. But the state-by-state campaigns, the group’s leader said, help the FGA create openings to deconstruct larger government regulations.

Since 2016, the FGA’s Opportunity Solutions Project has hired 115 lobbyists across the country with a presence in 22 states, according to the nonpartisan political watchdog group Open Secrets.

“The reason these rather unpopular policies succeed is because they come in under the radar screen,” said David Campbell, professor of American democracy at the University of Notre Dame. “Typically, these things get passed because they are often introduced in a very quiet way or by groups inching little by little through grass-roots efforts.”

Minnesota and Ohio have introduced proposals this year allowing teens to work more hours or in more dangerous occupations, such as construction. A bill in Georgia would prohibit the state government from requiring a minor to obtain a work permit.

The FGA-backed measures maintain existing child labor safety protections “while removing the permission slip that inserts government in between parents and their teenager’s desire to work,” Nick Stehle, the foundation’s vice president, said in a statement.

“Frankly, every state, including Missouri, should follow Arkansas’s lead to allow parents and their teenagers to have the conversation about work and make that decision themselves,” said Stehle, who is also a visiting fellow at the Opportunity Solutions Project.

The FGA declined to make Stehle and other representatives available for interviews.

It’s one of several conservative groups that have long taken aim at all manner of government regulations or social safety net programs. The FGA is funded by a broad swath of ultraconservative and Republican donors — such as the Ed Uihlein Family Foundation and 85 Fund, a nonprofit connected to political operative Leonard Leo — who have similarly supported other conservative policy groups.

The youth hiring or employment bills, as they are often titled, represent growing momentum among conservatives who contend that parents and not government policy should determine whether and where 14- and 15-year-olds should work.

“When you say that a bill will allow kids to work more or under dangerous conditions, it sounds wildly unpopular,” Campbell said. “You have to make the case that, no, this is really about parental rights, a very carefully chosen term that’s really hard to disagree with.”

Making it easier to hire 14-year-olds

Some employers grappling with a tightening labor market and pressure from inflation have turned to younger workers, rather than increasing wages or benefits to attract older applicants, experts say.

The employment rate among 16- to 24-year-olds is down compared with previous years, though, according to federal statistics.

A cleaning company illegally employed a 13-year-old. Her family is paying the price.

Supporters of the child worker proposals say they reduce red tape around the hiring process for minors. A spokeswoman for Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders, a rising Republican star, said her state’s law relieved parents of “obsolete” and “arbitrary burdens.”

“The main push for this reform didn’t come from big business,” Stehle, the FGA vice president, wrote in an essay for Fox. “It came from families like mine, who want more of the freedom that lets our children flourish.”

The Arkansas bill sponsors, Burkes and state Sen. Clint Penzo (R), did not respond to requests for comment.

Child welfare advocates and some business leaders said the new legislation could endanger children on the job and entice others to leave school to join the workforce.

Those risks are especially acute for undocumented minors who arrive in the United States without their parents. Close to 15 percent of those children are released from federal custody to distant relatives or nonrelative sponsors, Robin Dunn Marcos, the director of the Office of Refugee Resettlement, testified to a House panel on Tuesday. That makes them more vulnerable to labor trafficking, experts say.

“I don’t know that we have good handle on how many kids are being released to a non-parent and then exploited,” said Reid Maki, director of advocacy at the Child Labor Coalition.

Randy Zook, president of the Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce, said in an interview that his state’s law was “a solution looking for a problem.”

The work permits — more than 2,700 of which were issued by Arkansas officials in 2022, according to state government data — required proof of age, parental permission and an employer’s signature. They left an “important paper trail ” of where children were employed and reminded businesses of the rules, said Laura Kellams, from the nonprofit Arkansas Advocates For Children And Families.

“This wasn’t burdening parents or children who want to work,” Kellams said. “This wasn’t burdening business that followed the law. It would only be a burden to an employer who didn’t want to follow the rules about work hours and the types of work that kids that age are able to do.”

Funded by conservative political network

The FGA and Opportunity Solutions Project frequently maintain that state and federal regulators are holding back the size and quality of the U.S. workforce. The FGA has called for reforming home-based business laws, fast-tracking permitting processes, cutting social safety nets and creating other incentives to work — including youth employment with little to no oversight from the government.

A January 2022 white paper previewed talking points that lawmakers would go on to use while discussing the legislation.

The paper called teenagers “a critical source of labor,” and linked the conservative backlash to pandemic-era education policies to alleged overreach by school officials charged with protecting children in the workforce.

“Now is the time for state lawmakers to eliminate unnecessary hurdles to teenage work and leave the decision-making to parents,” the paper declares.

Shortly after publishing the paper, the groups were in contact with a leading state legislator to implement that policy agenda. In May 2022, Opportunity Solutions Project lobbyist James Harris forwarded two draft child worker bills to Daniel Wilhelm, the chief of staff to Missouri state Sen. Andrew Koenig (R), chair of the chamber’s committee on education and workforce development, according to emails obtained through open records laws.

Koenig introduced the measure as one of the first bills filed for the Missouri legislature’s 2023 session. Harris then testified in support of the legislation in a February hearing. “Really nothing to add,” Harris said, referring to Koenig’s opening remarks touting the bill, “other than, you’re right.”

Wilhelm in a statement said Koenig “learned about this legislation and after reviewing it decided that he wanted to file a bill because he supports the concept.”

In an interview, Harris said child labor protections in many states are based on “atrocious labor practices” of more than a century ago.

“Maybe there was a time and need for a lot of that,” he said. “Today’s work environments are the safest they’ve ever been.”

A surprising (and growing) gender gap in the most dangerous jobs

Tarren Bragdon, a former Maine state legislator, founded the FGA in 2011 with a focus on cutting social safety net and anti-poverty programs. It quickly tapped into conservative political fundraising networks and grew from $50,000 in seed funding to $4 million in revenue by its fourth year, according to tax filings and the group’s promotional materials.

In 2020, the most recent year for which the FGA and its funders’ full financial disclosures are available, more than 70 percent of its $10.6 million in revenue came from 14 conservative groups.

The FGA joined the State Policy Network, a confederation of conservative state-level think tanks that practice what leaders call the “Ikea model” of advocacy, its president said during the group’s 2013 conference. Affiliates such as the FGA display prefabricated policy projects for state officials, then provide the tools — including research and lobbying support — to push proposals through legislative and administrative processes.

In 2021, for example, Arkansas legislators passed 48 measures backed by the FGA, according to the foundation’s end-of-year report. It identified Arkansas, Missouri and Iowa among its five “super states” where it planned to increase its advocacy presence.

In 2022, the FGA claimed 144 “state policy reform wins,” including 45 related to unemployment and welfare, across a slew of states.

“Success in the states is critical for achieving national change, as it often opens the door to federal regulatory reform,” Bragdon wrote in the group’s 2021 report. “Once enough states successfully implement a reform, we can use the momentum and proven results to build pressure for regulatory change.”

Yet even legislators who support the FGA’s policies expanding child labor have found their limits.

Missouri’s bill was amended to require a parental permission form for children aged 14 to 16 who want to take a job. The original legislation, edited by the FGA, did not contain any such provision.