House GOP approve bill loosening Kentucky child labor law Skip to content

House GOP approve bill loosening Kentucky child labor law

Some Republicans join Democrats in voting against the measure

4 min read

Republicans in the GOP-dominated Kentucky House of Representatives approved Thursday legislation allowing some teenagers to work longer and later hours over strong opposition from their Democratic colleagues.

House Bill 255, sponsored by Rep. Phillip Pratt (R-Georgetown) repeals Kentucky’s existing child labor laws and aligns them with federal laws, which are less restrictive for minors aged 16 and 17. 

Kentucky law currently limits the number of hours that 16- and 17-year-olds can work on a school day to six. The limit increases to eight hours on a non-school day and up to 30 hours total during a school week, unless they receive parental permission to work more and maintain at least a 2.0 grade point average. Federal law doesn’t have any daily or weekly hour work limits for ages 16 and 17. 

The bill ignited strong pushback from Democrats, and a sizable number of Republicans joined Democrats in voting ‘no’ on HB 255 including Majority Whip Jason Nemes (R-Louisville). The bill passed 60-36. The bill now goes to the Kentucky Senate for its consideration.

Pratt, who owns a landscaping and lawn care company, said on the House floor having more teenagers entering the workforce was “not just an educational or social issue but an economic imperative.” 

“Our current statutes and regulations unnecessarily restrict the number of hours needed to work, often preventing them from seeking an opportunity to help them pay for college, learn new skills, and prepare for the future,” Pratt said. 

An analysis of the bill by the Kentucky Center for Economic Policy, a progressive think tank, also found the legislation could allow some minors under the age of 16 to work in more hazardous occupations currently prohibited by state and federal law, such as using power-driven mowers and cutters, catching poultry to prepare for transport, communications and public utilities, and more. Pratt, in responding to a question from a Democrat, said that the state can’t “trump” federal law.

Several Democrats lambasted the bill as opening the door to exploitation of children, particularly low-income children, migrants and minors working to support their families’ livelihoods. Rep. Sarah Stalker (D-Louisville) attacked the bill as putting the state into “very dangerous waters” for “our most vulnerable children.” 

Stalker said she’s heard from Kentucky principals about children not showing up to school because of choosing to work instead, making it hard to get those children back to school. 

“What does that say about our state? If we can’t even get people to finish high school,” Stalker said. “Vulnerable students with already challenging circumstances cannot afford to have to choose between their education and their ability to get a job without having (their) safety compromised.” 

A couple of Democrats questioned Pratt about whether he reached out to the Kentucky Education and Labor Cabinet about the bill. He said he did not, but that the cabinet reached out to him to request changes to the bill ahead of the House floor vote.

He said the cabinet sent the request to him Thursday with too little time to be added as a floor amendment to the bill ahead of the vote, but added that the changes were “unacceptable” to him anyway. 

“If they want to gut my bill, and that’s basically what they did, my answer would be ‘no,’” Pratt said. 

Jill Midkiff, a spokesperson for the Kentucky Education and Labor Cabinet, in a statement did not directly answer a question about what changes to the bill the cabinet had requested. But she said “workplace protections are particularly vital to safeguard our youngest workers.”

“HB 255 presents numerous safety concerns, removing several guardrails on what is already outlined in law as safe work activities for youth, allowing them to participate in hazardous work duties,” Midkiff said. “This presents a risk to the safety, and possible exploitation, of children in the workplace. These issues need to be thoroughly addressed to ensure our commonwealth upholds the fair labor standards we value, especially for our employed youth.”

Some Republicans pushed back against the Democrats’ criticism, with Republican Rep. Matthew Koch (R-Paris) saying some of the debate made it seem like “we were getting ready to put 12-year-olds working 80 to 100 hours a week down in the coal mines.” 

“Let them 16-17 year olds get out there and do this. They can manage this. We don’t give them enough credit of what they’re capable of doing,” Koch said. 

Nemes, the Republican majority whip, said he had voted against the bill because he wants to limit the amount of time 16 and 17 year olds can work to 30 hours and to prohibit those teenagers from working later than 10:30 p.m. on a school night. 

Without those limits, he said, the concerns Democrats raised “may be relevant.” 

He said Pratt had committed to adding those limits into the bill. The Kentucky Senate would have to add such changes to the bill, which would then have to be confirmed by the House.

“I think it’s a good bill. I just want to have that extra protection to make sure that students aren’t working after 10:30 at night on a school night,” Nemes said.


Written by Liam Niemeyer. Cross-posted from the Kentucky Lantern.

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Kentucky Lantern

The Kentucky Lantern is an independent, nonpartisan, free news service. We’re based in Frankfort a short walk from the Capitol, but all of Kentucky is our beat.



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