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A Billionaire Megadonor Is Behind the Bill to Weaken Florida’s Child Labor Laws
Documents reveal that a think tank funded by Dick Uihlein, a major DeSantis donor, drafted the bill to roll back child labor protections.
A conservative think tank funded by a far-right billionaire wrote a controversial new bill in Florida that would severely weaken the state’s child labor laws, according to records obtained by More Perfect Union.
Documents show that representatives for the Foundation for Government Accountability wrote the original draft of the Florida legislation, which would allow employers in the state to make 16- and 17-year-old teenagers work the same schedules as adults — including overnight shifts on school nights. The FGA is financed in large part by Dick Uihlein, a billionaire who has funded election-denial efforts and other far-right causes.
“Attached is draft language on the Youth Worker Freedom issue that Rep. Chaney expressed interest in to FGA,” a lobbyist for the FGA’s advocacy arm wrote in an Aug. 28 email to an aide to Rep. Linda Chaney, a Republican legislator from St. Pete Beach. More Perfect Union obtained a copy of the email through a public records request.
Three weeks later, Chaney filed House Bill 49, a nearly verbatim copy of the FGA’s proposal.
The Florida bill is part of a nationwide campaign led by the FGA to roll back longstanding state-level child labor protections. At least 16 states have now introduced similar bills, according to the Economic Policy Institute, and Republican governors in Iowa and Arkansas have signed into law significant rollbacks of child labor protections this year.
Based in Naples, Florida, the Foundation for Government Accountability has thus far been best known for fighting efforts to expand Medicaid health insurance to more Americans under the Affordable Care Act, as well as backing a recent move in Ohio to increase the threshold for citizen-led ballot initiatives from a majority to a supermajority.
Tax records show that roughly a third of the FGA’s funding in recent years has come from the Ed Uihlein Family Foundation, a private foundation that Dick Uihlein personally leads and funds.
Dick Uihlein, who founded the Wisconsin-based shipping supplies company Uline, has also been a major donor to Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. Campaign finance records show the billionaire has donated more than $2.4 million to DeSantis over the past five years — including $1 million to the Super PAC financing DeSantis’ campaign for president.
DeSantis has, in turn, worked very closely with the Uihlein-funded FGA. With the FGA cheering him on, the Florida governor has cut unemployment benefits for out-of-work Floridians, signed a union-busting law meant to make it harder for most public-sector employees in the state to collectively bargain, and led a brutal purge of the state’s Medicaid rolls following the COVID-19 pandemic.
DeSantis has declined to say whether he would sign or veto the child labor bill, HB 49, if it passes during Florida’s 2024 legislative session, which begins in January.
“Since this legislation is still subject to the legislative process (and therefore different iterations), the governor will decide on the merits of the bill in final form if and when it passes and is delivered to the governor's office,” DeSantis spokesperson Jeremy Redfern said Monday.
Under current state law, businesses in Florida cannot make 16- or 17-year-olds work between 11 p.m. and 6:30 a.m. on a school night. They cannot make those teenagers work more than eight hours when they have school the next day, and they cannot make them work more than 30 hours a week during the school year or more than six days in a row at any point.
HB 49 would not only eliminate all those restrictions but also bar any local communities in Florida from stepping in and enacting stronger child labor protections themselves. The Republican legislature in Florida has embraced such pre-emption laws to prevent stronger local protections on a litany of issues, including housing.
The legislation has drawn criticism from advocates for workers in Florida, who contend that it would undo important safeguards against child exploitation while allowing businesses to sidestep a tight labor market by using cheaper teen labor — rather than raising pay to attract more adult employees.
“We know that being overworked and sleep-deprived leads to poor school performance and workplace accidents and injuries,” said Alexis Tsoukalas, a policy analyst at the left-leaning Florida Policy Institute. “HB 49 will force kids to make a choice between their education and well-being and keeping their jobs.”
Amid that criticism, records show Chaney has turned to the FGA for help.
“Apparently some people don’t like HB 49, so the data points and talking points would be helpful sooner rather than later,” an aide to Chaney wrote in a Sept. 19 text message to an FGA lobbyist, after Chaney’s office was contacted by a reporter.
The lobbyist responded a short time later with talking points claiming that letting businesses make teenagers work more hours “allows them to learn valuable skills, [and] earn money while assisting small businesses with working shortages.” The talking points also claim that local cities or counties that try to adopt stronger child-labor laws “may prevent teenagers from freely working and learning the value of a dollar.”
Neither Chaney nor representatives for the FGA responded to requests for comment.
Right-wing organizations and various statewide and national business lobbies have quietly worked for the past year to build support for rollbacks to what are in some cases century-old laws that were instituted to protect children from exploitative work environments.
As More Perfect Union reported this past spring, the law in Iowa, which allows children as young as 14 and 15 to perform dangerous tasks, sprung up from a group of lobbyists collaborating with the state Workforce Development Board inside Gov. Kim Reynolds’ office. It was pushed primarily by lobbyists for the Iowa Restaurant Association, which sought to have minors working late on school nights and serving alcohol in pubs. The U.S. Department of Labor has said that the new Iowa law does not comply with federal labor laws.
The Department of Labor has been inundated with child labor violations in workplaces across the country over the past two years. Between October 2022 and July 2023, DOL found 765 cases of illegal child labor violations that exploited nearly 4,500 children, many of them young migrants secretly employed in factories and meat-packing plants. That represents a 44 percent year-over-year increase in child labor violations. In July, the federal government announced new initiatives to combat the rise in exploited child workers. (There have been at least 900 employer violations of federal child labor law in Florida since 2015, with fines totaling $900,000, according to the Economic Policy Institute.)
The spike in violations has also been fueled by fast food franchises, which have long had a reputation for employing young workers at low wages. In June, two 10-year-olds were found working for no pay at a McDonald’s at two in the morning, an egregious violation that generated national attention.