Indiana Bill Would Let 14-Year-Olds Drop Out to Work on a Farm
Plus: Abolishing $1 billion in medical debt, another right-to-work push, and more in our state legislative round-up.
By Paul Blest, More Perfect Union
If you thought we had mostly solved child labor in the United States, what transpired in state legislatures during 2023 should have absolved you of that notion. Already, 2024 isn’t looking much better.
On Monday, the opening day of Indiana’s legislative session, Republican Rep. Joanna King filed a bill that would allow kids as young as 14 to effectively drop out of school following 8th grade and go to work full-time on a farm. If the teenager “has been excused from compulsory school attendance after completing grade 8” and obtains their parents’ permission, they can work up to 40 hours a week all year round, including during school hours.
Last year saw several major child labor scandals around the country and throughout the supply chain—including at Packers Sanitation Services (PSSI), an industrial cleaning company that employed more than a hundred kids in dangerous jobs—exposing both the rampant use of underage workers as well as the paltry federal penalties for employing kids in U.S. workplaces.
At the same time, more than a dozen states including Iowa, Arkansas, and Florida (more on that soon) either passed or initiated legislation loosening what existing child labor protections we do have. Indiana’s would probably top them all. At the very least, the filing of the bill is an indication that the right-wing alliance of corporate interests and Republicans who openly disdain education will continue to further their mission of un
Just last year, the U.S. Department of Labor investigation found that two underage kids in northern Indiana who were employed by PSSI worked dangerous jobs at a self-described “ethically grounded” duck processing plant. Despite this widespread exploitation of children by one company across eight states, the federal penalty for such rampant violations is so paltry that PSSI walked away with just a $1.5 million fine.
The new Indiana bill hasn’t yet received a hearing date, but we’ll be following as it moves through the legislature.
What’s happening in the states
Medical debt forgiveness in New Jersey: New Jersey’s 2024 state budget set aside $10 million for the organization RIP Medical Debt to help abolish roughly $1 billion in medical debt of current residents. (RIP Medical Debt buys up debt at pennies on the dollar, then forgives it entirely, no strings attached. Here’s our video explaining their vital work and encouraging state and local governments to fund these sorts of medical debt relief efforts.)
The contract with New Jersey hasn’t been finalized, RIP Medical Debt told us, but Gov. Phil Murphy is already pushing to expand the fight against medical debt, which is now the leading cause of personal bankruptcy in the U.S.
During his State of the State address Tuesday, Murphy called on lawmakers to pass a two-bill package to prevent New Jerseyans “avoid being caught in a medical debt trap.” The plan would stop providers and hospitals from sending unpaid medical bills to collections until at least six months after the first bill is received. (There’s a similar bill in the U.S. Senate, introduced by Chris Murphy (D-CT) and Mike Braun (R-IN).)
Yes, more child labor: Florida has further advanced a bill that would loosen child labor restrictions after a contentious hearing last month where bill sponsor Rep. Linda Chaney claimed that 16- and 17-year-olds aren’t children but “youth workers.” On Wednesday, she changed this description to “teenagers.”
The bill would let employers schedule high school students for more than 8-hour shifts on school nights, more than 30 hours a week, more than six straight days during the school year, and eliminate meal breaks for teens. You can watch clips from the hearing here; the bill now heads to the House Commerce committee.
New Hampshire GOP tries right-to-work, again: Last year, Michigan became the first state in decades to repeal a right-to-work law. Some Republicans in New Hampshire, by contrast, want to implement one.
During a House hearing Wednesday, GOP Rep. Dan Maguire described right-to-work as “antitrust legislation,” and oddly claimed that current labor law allows the AFL-CIO and Walmart to collude to force the company’s workers to unionize. (Walmart has fought unionization for decades. And workers decide to unionize — not unions or companies. Also, the AFL-CIO is a labor federation, not a retail union.)
There have been more than 30 attempts in the past four decades to pass right-to-work in New Hampshire, according to the New Hampshire Bulletin.
What we’re reading
— “They Clean After Holiday Shoppers. But They Don’t Get to Celebrate With Their Families.” (Sarah Lazare, Workday)
— “Here’s Every Bill Kathy Hochul Vetoed in 2023” (New York Focus)
— “Who enforces child labor law in Florida? Just 7 state employees, plus the feds” (McKenna Schueler, Orlando Weekly)
— Don’t let your cats commit any OSHA violations this year, even as a treat.