"Early in the 19th century, child labor had become a regular feature of the factory system in the United States," said "A Kentucky Guide to Employment Law," a report by Michael Matuszak of the University of Kentucky Center for Labor Education and Research and Carol Martin of UK's Gatton College of Business and Economics.
"In the 1820s and 1830s, children under 16 were estimated to make up between one-third and one-half of the labor force of the New England states. Hired as part of the family system, children as young as 4 worked the same hours as their parents," the Matuszak-Martin report said.
Child laborers not only became common on factory floors but also in mills and mines, said the report.
Crusade against child labor launched in early 1900s
It was not until the early 1900s that a crusade against child labor was launched by the National Labor Committee, the report said. But while the committee and other organizations attempted to limit child labor, it was not until the 1930s, during the administration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, that a comprehensive child labor law was enacted, with the passage of the Fair Labor Standards Act; since then, each state has adopted its own laws.
Despite what appear to be strong and specific child labor laws at the national and state levels, at least on paper, the Matuszak-Martin report said far too many employers ignore them or aspects of them.
"Today's workers seem to have little in common with the horror stories of child labor in the past; however, nearly three quarters of today's high school students hold or have held a part-time or full-time job (including baby-sitting as well as jobs in offices and restaurants)," the report said. "Some parents and teachers complain that students are sacrificing their school work and homework in the interest of after-school employment. In recent years, child labor violations have increased dramatically.
"Child labor laws, like workplace laws, were created to prevent the exploitation of workers. For most teenagers, after-school employment or a summer job offers an opportunity to make a few bucks to buy a car, clothes, save for college or help out at home," said the report.
"Even if current employment is only temporary, it makes sense to know what the regulations are. In nearly all cases, you cannot be fired for filing a complaint."
And that is a point that is regularly pressed by Les Renke, an attorney with the state Department of Labor who specializes in child labor law.
"We not only want employers to know every facet of child labor laws but we also want teenage employees to know the laws as well, including their right to file a complaint if they find a violation," Renke said.
Complaints have leveled off
While there had been a rise in complaints over the past two decades, they have leveled off in recent years, he said. The nature of complaints remains about the same, he said.
"Most of the complaints we receive deal with the hours that a particular teenager or, more often, a whole group of teenagers working at the same place, are working. They're either too many hours or working too late or both," Renke said.
Other common complaints include the failure of employers to give required rest breaks and meal breaks and concerns over teens working with or near hazardous equipment and substances, he said.
"Complaints come from a variety of sources," said Renke. "They come from regular customers at a fast-food restaurant who, say, might eat a couple of meal there a day and might notice teens who appear to be working longer than they should.
"Complaints also come from teachers who might ask a student why he doesn't get his homework done and finds out he's working too many hours, or a neighbor who notices the kid next door is overly fatigued and finds out where he works."
The state Department of Labor's child labor compliance office receives and investigates all complaints and, when it finds violations, enforces appropriate laws and imposes penalties, he said.
Different types of fines