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California Toughens Child Labor Law

Stephen R. Sutter and Howard R. Rosenberg

Federal and state laws regulate the employment of minors. Last year the California legislature enacted the Omnibus Child Labor Reform Act (AB 1900), more closely aligning the state code with federal, effective January 1995. The Labor Commissioner has declared child labor law enforcement a high priority. A total of 213 child labor citations were issued in California last year under under state law, according to the Department of Industrial Relations, and 667 under the federal Fair Labor Standards Act.

Child labor laws are intended to ensure that employment of persons younger than 18 is compatible with their age, schooling, and safety. They cover citizens and noncitizens alike who have not graduated from high school or earned equivalency certificates. These laws restrict the types of work that minors may perform and the hours that minors may be employed.

It is generally illegal to employ minors without a valid work permit issued by the local school district, for more hours than permitted, or in dangerous jobs. A significant exception applies to minors employed by their parents in any agricultural task that is performed (a) when school is not in session or outside school hours, and (b) exclusively on or in connection with premises owned, operated, or controlled by the parent.

Among provisions of AB 1900 relevant to agricultural employment are closer conformance to federal limits on hours, substantial incorporation of the federal list of hazardous occupations, and an increase in state penalties for violation of child labor law.

Permission to Employ a Minor

Before starting work in California, a minor has to obtain an employer-specific work permit, renewable annually. Farm operators are prohibited from hiring minors, except their own children, without a permit to employ, and they are required to keep on file a copy of that document for each minor currently on the payroll.

A work permit shows name of minor, social security number, birth date, address, phone number, current school attended, allowable work hours per day and per week during the school term, and expiration date. The permit is issued by the school district in which the minor resides or is enrolled, after the district receives a parent or legal guardian's written request, evidence of the minor's age, and a prospective employer's statement of intent to hire. It is revokable if the work is harming the child's health or schooling. Children younger than 12 are not eligible for work permits.

Children working for their parents on a farm owned or controlled by their parents may work at any time outside of school hours, in any job, and without a permit. If, however, a parent for which a child works is deemed to be an employee of another entity, then the minor is likewise an employee of that entity and subject to normal child labor limits.

Every owner or operator of a farm in California who employs any parent or guardian with minor children in immediate custody is required to post a notice, in English and Spanish, stating that minors are not allowed to work on the premises unless legally permitted to do so by duly constituted authorities.

Limits on Hours

Agricultural exceptions to the restriction of hours for minors in nonagricultural work have been narrowed. The maximum number of hours a child is permitted to work depends on his or her age.

During the school year, minors aged 16 to 17 generally are limited to 4 hours of work on a school day, 8 hours on a nonschool day, from 5 a.m. to 10 p.m. (or until 12:30 a.m. on a nonschool day). When school is out, the limits are 8 hours per day and 48 per week. The Labor Commissioner may grant an exception allowing up to 10 hours of work in an agricultural packing shed on nonschool days in the peak harvest season, if it prevents undue hardship for the employer and does not materially affect the safety or welfare of the minor.

Minors 14 to 15 years of age may work up to 3 hours on a school day, 8 hours on a nonschool day, and 18 hours in a week, between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. when school is in session, until 9 p.m. from June 1st through Labor Day, and as many as 40 hours per week when school is out.

Minors aged 12 to 13 may work only on nonschool days, up to 8 hours per day, and 40 hours per week. It is unlawful to employ minors under age 12.

Hazardous Work

Even during permitted hours, some jobs are out of bounds for minors. California prohibitions now include by reference all the occupations declared in federal regulations as hazardous for minors or detrimental to their health or well-being. The state Division of Labor Standards Enforcement (DSLE, Department of Industrial Relations) may, after a hearing, add occupations to those on the federal list, which itself is subject to revision from time to time.

The federal rules generally ban employment of minors in work with dangerous machinery, with hazardous substances, or in dangerous work settings. They specifically prohibit the following for children under age 16:

California rules also prohibit minors under age 16 from servicing machinery, working in close proximity to moving machinery, or performing tasks that cause dust in hazardous quantities. State law now bars minors under 12 not only from working in but also from accompanying parents (guardians) employed in a job that has been declared hazardous for minors under 16 or in an agricultural zone of danger - on or about moving equipment, around unprotected chemicals, and around unprotected water hazards.

Enforcement and Penalties

Child labor restrictions apply to all employers hiring minors, except for parents or legal guardians whose children work for them or under their control on property they own or operate. Liability for violations may extend to the owner of a farm on which a minor works under the employ of a third party, if the owner benefits from the minor's work. Even if not the direct employer of a minor, a property owner can be held jointly responsible for a violation that he or she knows about and permits.

The Labor Commissioner (who heads the DLSE) enforces state laws protecting minors. School district attendance officers are authorized to also investigate and report to the Labor Commissioner on violations of work permit requirements. The Wage and Hour Division of the U.S. Department of Labor is responsible for enforcing federal child labor provisions. As a practical matter, state and federal officials now cooperate in enforcing essentially the same set of standards.

State fines for "Class B violations," infractions of work permit or hours requirements, have increased from the former $100-$500 range to the federal level of $500 minimum and $1,000 maximum per occurrence.

More serious "Class A violations" include employing a minor under 16 in a dangerous occupation, acting unlawfully so as to present an imminent danger to a minor of any age, and violating the permit or hours requirements for a third time or more. The minimum civil money penalty for these offenses has been raised from $1,000 to $5,000, the maximum from $5,000 to $10,000. Willful violations of this type may also be grounds for imprisonment.

While the Child Labor Reform Act has increased penalties, it also should reduce confusion stemming from differences between federal and state rules.


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