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Bill loosening child labor restrictions approved by Arkansas committee

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Arkansas Legislature
Rep. Rebecca Burkes, R-Lowell, is joined by Arkansas Division of Labor Director Ralph Hudson in a meeting of the House Public Health, Welfare and Labor committee on Tuesday.

Arkansas lawmakers have advanced a bill which would do away with work permits for minors under the age of 16.

House Bill 1410 would no longer require kids under 16 to provide proof of age, a description of their work schedule or parental consent to the state Department of Labor and Licensing in order to get a job.

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Rebecca Burkes, R-Lowell, said the goal is to limit government involvement in families’ decisions. In a meeting of the House Public Health, Welfare and Labor committee on Tuesday, she reassured lawmakers the bill wouldn’t supersede any existing child labor regulations.

“We have a myriad of laws, children under 14 generally cannot work unless they’re working in a family business, there’s some exceptions set forth,” Burkes said. “We’re talking about empowering parents to make decisions and not getting permission from the government for this person to work.”

Josh Price with the nonprofit immigrants’ rights group Arkansas United spoke against the bill, saying it could lead to some children falling through the cracks in the system.

“You’re not requiring an employee ID, you’re not requiring a certification, you’re not providing a proof of age, and then Arkansas is currently one of just a few states that does not require employers to provide a pay stub,” Price said. “So how do we know that these employees are even being paid a fair wage?”

Price cited incidents from other states that don’t require work permits in which children were exploited, injured or killed on the job. He also argued companies could use the lack of documentation as a way to evade paying their fair share of taxes.

Some lawmakers questioned whether the work permits have much of an effect on labor in the state, aside from serving as “red tape.” Rep. Zack Gramlich, R-Fort Smith, argued the permits are redundant since very few are rejected by state regulators.

Laura Kellams with Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families said work permits are still needed as an extra safeguard against children being exploited in the workplace.

“Even if the state doesn’t do anything with these permits, it still requires that employers see a piece of paper that says the parent says it’s okay for this 13-year-old to have this job. Without that, actually, I would argue that you’re cutting the parents out of the process,” Kellams said.

Arkansas law currently prohibits children under 16 from working more than eight hours a day, more than six days a week and more than 48 hours per week. Working hours and types of workplaces are also regulated under current child labor laws.

Despite facing bipartisan opposition, the bill passed with 12 committee members voting in its favor and seven voting against it. Republican Reps. Jeremy Wooldridge and Kendra Moore joined the committee’s five Democratic lawmakers in voting against the bill, which now heads to the full House for consideration.

Daniel Breen is a Little Rock-based reporter, anchor and producer for KUAR.