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Legislation reforming ‘convoluted’ Michigan child labor law receives hearing

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Legislation reforming ‘convoluted’ Michigan child labor law receives hearing

May 24, 2024 | 8:40 am ET
By Kyle Davidson
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Legislation reforming ‘convoluted’ Michigan child labor law receives hearing
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Rep. Phil Skaggs (D-East Grand Rapids) testifies before the House Labor Committee on May 23, 2024. | Kyle Davidson

At a Thursday hearing, the Michigan House Labor Committee took testimony on a bill looking to address child labor concerns by updating the state’s process for permitting young workers. 

State Rep. Phil Skaggs (D-East Grand Rapids) discussed his House Bill 5594, which would transfer the responsibility of issuing and revoking work permits for minors from schools to the Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity (LEO), which he said was a continuation of efforts to ensure children are safe in the workplace.

Skaggs previously testified before the committee in October to discuss bills increasing the penalties for child labor abuse, pointing to the story of a 17-year-old employed at a Michigan meat processing plant who lost his hand when it was pulled into a meat grinder. When the owner of the plant pleaded guilty to employing the teen, he was sentenced to pay $1,143 in fines and costs

Scholten bill would increase fines for child labor violations

Under the current system, work permits are issued by local school districts and kept on file at the minor’s place of employment and in their permanent school record for the duration of their employment.

“This can be a convoluted process and although many school districts are extraordinarily diligent and fast acting, because much of the employment can be in the summer and because youth labor permitting is not the number one mission of our K through 12 school system, sometimes we have delays in permitting,” Skaggs said. 

While schools being involved in the work permit process made sense in the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s as the entity that was closest to young people, permitting is not their primary mission, Skaggs said, noting the law his bill would amend was from 1978. 

If the bill is enacted, a young person would get their permit through an online registration system. While schools would still be allowed to revoke work permits and would be informed about the permit, it removes them as one of the major components of working through the permitting process. 

The department would also be required to create a database of authorized youth employers based on information in the registration system, if the bill is passed into law.  

Members of the department testified that this database would allow them to be proactive in protecting minors. While LEO has the authority to investigate establishments where minors are employed, it currently lacks a mechanism to identify where minors are employed before a violation occurs and triggers an investigation, said Jayshona Hicks, LEO’s legislative director. 

LEO State Assistant Administrator Randall Harrison said keeping a registry of authorized youth employers would also help improve education. While LEO currently selects businesses at random to discuss the laws it enforces, having a registry of locations where children are working allow LEO to prioritize those businesses for outreach and education. 

“We do as much education outreach as we can, but it’s sort of self-selecting in because we don’t know who’s employing young workers,” said Sean Egan, LEO deputy director. 

Egan also said a new electronic system would make things easier for employers, schools and kids, and would alleviate the administrative burden and record keeping requirements. The department also expects it to speed up the permitting process.

However, Rep. Tom Kunse (R-Clare) argued it would be best to keep permitting local. 

“When a 16-year-old has a complaint, do you think they’d be more comfortable going to a school counselor or logging on to a website,” he said. 

“The issue of keeping this local is no one knows the student better than the schools,” Kunse said. 

He also questioned LEO’s lack of documentation of where minors are working, arguing the new system creates more bureaucracy.

Legislation reforming ‘convoluted’ Michigan child labor law receives hearing
Rep. Tom Kunse (R-Clare) at the House Labor Committee on May 23, 2024. | Kyle Davidson

“I’m sure the state of Michigan has your birthday when you file your taxes. I don’t accept that you say ‘Well, that’s a different department.’ … We have the information, we just don’t share,” Kunse said.

“[The state of Michigan knows] your birthday. They know your wages. If LEO can’t collect it from Department of Treasury, that’s their fault,” Kunse said.

Kunse told reporters that while he supports streamlining the permitting system, it needs to focus on the kids, arguing LEO would not be able to provide appropriate oversight of children working while in school. 

A number of business groups also submitted a letter in opposition to the bill arguing it would further complicate the permitting process, and draw out the timeline for permit approvals. 

“Michigan should be working to break down barriers to students seeking valuable work experience and the opportunity to earn money, not adding additional red tape and barriers to entry,” reads the letter, which was signed by members of the Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce, Home Builders Association of Michigan, Michigan Chamber of Commerce, Michigan Retailers Association, Michigan Restaurant and Lodging Association, National Federation of Independent Business and the Small Business Association of Michigan.