Kentucky kids deserve better than being exploited like it’s 1899 Skip to content

Kentucky kids deserve better than being exploited like it’s 1899

House-approved bill would take the state and its youngsters in the wrong direction

"A little spinner in the Mollohan Mills, Newberry, S.C. She was tending her 'sides' like a veteran, but after I took the photo, the overseer came up and said in an apologetic tone that was pathetic, 'She just happened in.' Then a moment later he repeated the information. The mills appear to be full of youngsters that 'just happened in,' or 'are helping sister.' Dec. 3, 08. Witness Sara R. Hine. Location: Newberry, South Carolina (photo by Lewis W. Hine for the National Child Labor Committee [public domain] via Wikimedia Commons)

When I was 16, I nearly sliced two fingers off my left hand while working at a plastics factory. A tenacious strip of tissue and pins inserted through my fingertips gave me a second chance.

I thought of my near amputation last week as the state House passed House Bill 255, which would weaken Kentucky’s already permissive child labor laws. That bill will put more children at risk of falling behind at school, being exploited by unscrupulous employers eager for low-wage workers and getting hurt at work.

In the floor debate, supporters said the goal of HB 255 is to allow teenagers to work. Of course, Kentucky regulations already allow that. Under current law, bosses can schedule 16- and 17-year-olds as many as 40 hours a week and for 6.5-hour shifts on the heels of their seven-hours in the classroom. They can schedule kids to get off at 11:00 p.m. on school nights and 1 a.m. on weekends. If HB 255 becomes law those limitations would be removed, allowing bosses to push kids to work through the night and as much as they need them.

This moves Kentucky in the wrong direction. Research consistently shows that more than 20 hours of work during the school week is bad for kids. It leads to more academic challenges and more behavior problems. It leaves less time for academics and results in higher dropout rates. Studies have shown that the more hours worked, the more grades suffer.

These long hours would also come with an increased risk of workplace injuries, like mine. Young workers already get hurt at high rates. Working them harder and longer and depriving them of even more sleep certainly won’t improve those statistics.

Helping kids prepare for a good career or for college should be our priority. Done judiciously, work can be part of that. It can help kids establish independence, learn skills and earn money. This is not an argument against teenagers working. It’s an argument against fueling more school dropouts and giving employers permission to exploit kids as cheap labor and put them in dangerous jobs. 

HB 255 makes that more likely by loosening restrictions on the tasks children as young as 14 can perform at work, allowing them to do professional landscaping or coop chickens on a poultry factory farm. While it would remain illegal to do this work under federal law because of the severe hazards, changing state law creates confusion and leaves oversight in the hands of an underfunded federal agency, all but ensuring kids will be assigned these inherently dangerous jobs.

Rolling back child labor laws happening all across the country

Kentucky is far from the only state at risk of dragging child labor standards to the 19th century. This is a coordinated, nationwide effort pushed by billionaire-backed corporate interest groups such as the Foundation for Government Accountability, a Florida-based think tank that frequently lobbies Kentucky lawmakers to erode the safety net and deplete worker protections. In the past three years, at least 28 states have seen bills that would weaken child labor laws so corporations can rely on cheap and compliant child workers rather than cut into their bottom lines to hire adults who need the work.

And this effort comes at a time when child labor complaints are exploding in Kentucky. In the four years between 2015 and 2018, Kentucky saw 73 federal child labor violations. That number increased by 1300% between 2019 and 2022. But instead of changing the law to better protect the kids exploited by these bad actors, HB 255 weakens it.

I’m glad I worked as a teen and support Kentuckians who want to do the same. But we learned a century ago that children need protections at work and that remains true today. Not every boss has the best intentions for our youngest workers, and I know firsthand what happens when we put kids in harm’s way.


Written by Adam Raymond. 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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