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‘Youth apprenticeship program’ bill raises child labor concerns for advocates


‘Youth apprenticeship program’ bill raises child labor concerns for advocates

Mar 18, 2024 | 6:00 am ET
By Lori Kersey
‘Youth apprenticeship program’ bill raises child labor concerns for advocates
House Bill 5162, if signed into law, would allow 16- and 17-year-old children to participate in apprenticeship programs for professions such as roofing. (Getty Images)

A bill that would create a work apprenticeship program for 11th and 12th graders in West Virginia has raised concerns it may also expose them to hazardous working environments, including roofing operations.

House Bill 5162 would direct the state Department of Education to create a “youth apprenticeship program aimed at a “broad range of skills” including “manufacturing, engineering technology, administration and office technology, and health care.” 

Lawmakers completed the bill and it’s currently awaiting consideration by Gov. Jim Justice. 

The bill would require the Department of Education to create pilot projects for the 2024-25 school year and establish a comprehensive apprenticeship program for all school systems for the 2025 to 2026 school year.

Each apprenticeship would have at least 135 classroom hours of related academic instruction and training, 400 hours of on-the-job training and progressive wage schedule established by the participating employer, according to the bill. The program would be open to any public, private or homeschooled student in the 11th or 12th grade who are 16 years old or older. 

Bill sponsor Del. Gary Howell, R-Mineral, said he got the idea by hearing about a similar one while attending the Council of State Governments Southern Legislative Conference last summer. 

“I was learning about this program — I think it was Mississippi, where they were starting apprenticeship programs the last two years of high school, and that there was some federal money available to do this,” Howell said. “So I thought, this is a really good program.

“We have a huge shortage in what is generally called the middle skills gap, that’s your mechanics, your plumbers, your welders and stuff like that,” he said. “That’s why it’s so hard to get anything repaired anymore.”

Advocates, including the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy and the Economic Policy Institute worried earlier versions of the bill would put kids at risk to hazardous working environments.The legislation was one of two bills lawmakers considered that would have weakened the state’s protections for young workers. 

House Bill 5159 would have eliminated the work permit requirement for 14 and 15 year olds seeking employment. The legislation passed in the House of Delegates but died after the Senate Judiciary committee declined to take it up. 

Kelly Allen, executive director of the Center on Budget and Policy, said the final version of House Bill 5162 was much improved over the introduced version, but it still raises concerns. 

The original version of the bill seemingly would have opened youth participating in the program to working in all 17 hazardous occupations that state and federal law currently prohibit kids from working in, including logging and sawmilling, meat processing, explosives and roofing. 

The final version of the bill carves out exemptions in the state’s child labor laws to allow children to work in roofing as a part of the apprenticeship program. According to the bill, students age 16 and above can work in roofing on a limited basis, with parental consent, for the purpose of learning how to install, wire or repair a rooftop or other equipment under some conditions. 

“It has grave concerns for us. [Roofing] is the most dangerous job in construction, And we’ve seen national news around minor deaths working on roofs,” Allen said. “But that said, it did include some more robust protections around apprenticeships that involve roofing, so I guess it’s a mixed bag.”

Nina Mast, state economic analyst for the Economic Policy Institute, a nonprofit, nonpartisan think tank aimed at including the needs of low- and middle-income workers in economic policy discussions, agreed that the final version of the bill was much improved than the original version, but said not all concerns were addressed. 

Mast said her main concern with the bill now is that it’s unclear and up to interpretation whether minors can work in hazardous work beyond what is outlined in the federal Fair Labor Standards Act. 

“If it is not clear to advocates who have pored over multiple versions of the bill, how can we expect it to be clear to the lawmakers voting in support of it, to the employers expected to follow it, or to state agents charged with enforcing it?” Mast said. 

The federal department of labor outlines jobs they’re most dangerous jobs in our economy, especially for young people, she said, but there are already exemptions to allow apprentices and student learners to engage in those dangerous occupations with limits and supervision. 

“Expanding hazardous work for minors further is unnecessary, not supported by evidence, and could put more youth apprentices and student learners at risk of being injured or killed on the job,” Mast said. “Expanding hazardous work permitted for minors under the guise of promoting youth apprenticeship is a dangerous trend we are tracking in multiple states. 

“And time and time again, we are finding that the proponents of these bills either do not understand or do not respect federal standards and they do not understand the implications of these bills for youth safety in the workplace,” she said. 

Mast pointed to three teenagers killed on the job last summer doing work they would not have been doing otherwise if their employer had abided by federal standards.

“At a time when violations of child labor violations are on the rise, any bill that weakens child labor standards is a shameful step in the wrong direction,” she said. 

Howell acknowledged the concerns raised by the Center on Budget and Policy and the Economic Policy Institute, but said the bill emphasizes adherence to U.S. Child Labor Provisions under the Fair Labor Standards Act, ensuring protection for kids. 

“The additional language incorporated during the committee process, though redundant in my view, reinforces compliance with Federal child labor laws,” Howell told West Virginia Watch. “Our aim in crafting this bill was to strike a balance, allowing students the flexibility to gain valuable experience for their careers while mitigating safety risks. This is achieved through language mandating direct supervision and restricting work to occasional and incidental occurrences.”

According to the Department of Labor, the Federal Labor Standards Act generally applies to employees of businesses that have an annual dollar volume of sales or business done of at least $500,000, and to hospitals, businesses providing medical or nursing care for residents, schools and preschools, and government agencies.

“Nationally, more than half of all construction firms are smaller than $500,000 per year in business,” Allen said. “So we’re talking about a very, very significant number of employers who aren’t required to comply with the FLSA, which is what makes the state law so important to protect kids.”