We always joke about child labor laws when we ask our kids to do things around the house. When our kids get older, they like to get in on the joke and tell us that they aren’t slave labor.
On a serious note, we want to instill work ethic in our kids, and we strive to teach them through action and doing. Kids need to learn the value of hard work before they reach the job age.
Most of the laws on child labor are outlined in the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 (FLSA),1 but there are some exceptions according to state laws, and the type of job being worked.
Typically kids will start working a part-time job around 16, but what about younger kids? What about 8-year-olds who act in movies? What about having your kids mow the grass? What are the actual child labor laws?
I’m glad you asked, let’s see what they are…
Laws for Kids Under 14
Tweens, pre-teens, and barely-teens (13-year-olds) can perform their duties around the house without you having to worry about a swat team busting in the side door like the Kool-Aid Man.
There’s no law against kids doing basic chores and household functions at any age. The law leaves it up to the parents to decide what’s reasonable based on age.
For example, your kids can work on your farms, as long as they aren’t exposed to any hazardous duties. Federal agriculture laws actually state, specifically, what hazardous duties are not allowed for those under 16. For now, we’re only talking about 13 and younger, but I’ll go ahead and list the hazardous jobs here:2
- Operating a tractor over 20 PTO horsepower or connecting or disconnecting its implements;
- Operating or assisting to operate a corn picker, cotton picker, grain combine, hay mower, forage harvester, hay baler, potato digger, mobile pea viner, feed grinder, crop dryer, forage blower, auger conveyor, unloading mechanism of a nongravity-type self-unloading wagon or trailer, power post-hole digger, power post driver, or nonwalking-type rotary tiller;
- Operating or working with a trencher or earthmoving equipment, fork lift, potato combine, or power-driven circular, band, or chain saw;
- Working in a yard, pen, or stall occupied by a bull, boar, or stud horse maintained for breeding purposes; a sow with suckling pigs; or a cow with a newborn calf (with umbilical cord present);
- Felling, buckling, skidding, loading, or unloading timber with a butt diameter of more than 6 inches;
- Working from a ladder or scaffold at a height of over 20 feet;
- Driving a bus, truck or automobile to transport passengers, or riding on a tractor as a passenger or helper;
- Working inside a fruit, forage, or grain storage designed to retain an oxygen-deficient or toxic atmosphere; an upright silo within 2 weeks after silage has been added or when a top unloading device is in operating position; a manure pit; or a horizontal silo while operating a tractor for packing purposes;
- Handling or applying toxic agricultural chemicals identified by the words “danger,” “poison,” or “warning” or a skull and crossbones on the label;
- Handling or using explosives; and
- Transporting, transferring, or applying anhydrous ammonia.
As long as your 12 or 13-year-old isn’t performing any of those jobs on the farm, they can work. But it doesn’t end with farming. They can also perform some basic and classic jobs, such as:
- Casual, occasional babysitting
- Newspaper delivery
- Gathering evergreens and making wreaths (random, I know)
- Working for their parents as long as it’s not mining, manufacturing, or any of the other 17 hazardous occupations
Additionally, kids are allowed to work for their parents company,3 which is a great way to teach your kids about hard work.
I worked for my mom’s restaurant from the age of 12. I made pizzas and washed dishes, which not only taught me about work, but allowed me to buy an absurd amount of Hot Wheels and football cards.
To make work more accessible, at the age of 15, many states offer a hardship license for children to drive to and from work and school. At this age, kids are allowed to work outside of school hours in non-hazardous jobs. Now for the fun age… the official work age: 16.
Laws for 16-Year-Olds
At 16, your teen is old enough to work unlimited hours, though I wouldn’t let them go too crazy with it. Outside of a few exceptions, such as farms except from the federal minimum wage, 16-year-olds must be paid at least the federal minimum.
Kids under 20 are subject to a possible “youth minimum wage,” which comes out to $4.25/hour, but this can only be for the first 90 days of employment. However, the clock starts over each time they switch jobs.
There are plenty of great job options for 16-year-olds, such as:
- Washing dishes/bussing tables/hosting at a restaurant
- Retail store sales and cashier
- Library assistant
- Lawn and gardening
- Washing/detailing vehicles
- Senior citizen assistant
- Hotel desk clerk
Before the age of 18, I had washed dishes, cooked food, delivered newspapers and phone books (remember those?), mowed lawns, detailed cars, labored at a body shop, and hung door-hangers for a carpet cleaning business.
I think those years of hard work helped instill work ethic in me as a second-nature trait. I probably worked way harder than I earned, but it was setting the stage for my adult life.
Once I turned 18, I was already working a few jobs, and I kept going to earn more money than I should have had at that age, living with my mom and not paying many bills at all. If I could do it over again, I would’ve saved more, but I’m still glad I got those years of blue-collar experience.
At 18, kids are technically no longer kids by labor laws, and by pretty much every other law.
States Laws and Exceptions
Like everything, there are exceptions to many of the child labor laws. The most important thing to know is that your kid can work for your business, and do chores around the house.
Some states require work permits for young workers, and other states don’t. States with abundant farmland typically go a little stricter on farm rules, but still allow kids to work on them.
See your specific state’s website for more:
Between the standard federal laws and your state laws, you should get a good idea of how (and how much) your child is allowed to work. Many people don’t even realize kids can legally work before 16.
The goal isn’t to force work upon your kids, but your kids will appreciate the extra money, and you’ll appreciate the lessons work will teach them. It’s not just the work, it’s also the social interaction and customer service skills they will learn.
People skills are useful in any field. Even in the military, customer service is still a thing, and an important one. I wouldn’t have guessed that, but it’s true. These people skills will go a long way if your child embraces learning them.
Further Book Reading
- The Child Labor Reform Movement by Steven Otfinoski
- Child Labor in America: A History by Chaim Rosenberg
- Child Labor in America: The Epic Legal Struggle to Protect Children by John Fliter