As migrants flee, Florida GOP pushes to ease child labor laws to deal with shortage of workers

Florida is experiencing a severe labor shortage. It impacts the key hospitality sector, which is having problems filling typically low-paying jobs at restaurants, hotels, and theme parks. Farmers are having difficulty finding workers to pick crops. And there aren’t enough construction workers to clean up and rebuild after hurricanes strike. 

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce reported that, as of August 2023, there are only 53 workers for every 100 open jobs in the Sunshine State. But Gov. Ron DeSantis has made clear that migrants are unwelcome in Florida. And to deal with the labor shortage, Florida Republicans have come up with a  new idea—easing child labor laws for 16- and 17-year-olds. 

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The GOP state representative who introduced legislation to loosen work regulations for teenagers chose to replace the term “child labor.”

”This bill is not about children,” state Rep. Linda Chaney told her colleagues at a committee hearing on Wednesday. “This bill is about 16- and 17-year-olds. These are youth workers that are driving automobiles. These are not children.”

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Here’s how the Orlando Weekly described the bill introduced by Chaney:

Backed by industry groups representing restaurant and hotel owners, the proposed bill would get rid of state guidelines on when 16- and 17-year-olds can work and would limit local governments’ ability to enact stronger regulations in their communities.

The bill, for instance, would make it legal for employers to put older teens to work on overnight shifts, even if they have school the next day.

Currently, under Florida law, it’s illegal for employers to work minors under 18 more than 30 hours a week during the school year, put them to work during school hours, put them to work overnight (between 11 p.m. to 6:30 a.m.) or schedule older teens to work more than six days in a row.

Nikki Fried, the chair of the Florida Democratic Party, opposed the proposal, saying that “the answer isn’t changing the laws and making it more dangerous.”

“These kids need to be focusing on graduating. What helps the economy is getting them out of schools and getting them into professional careers,“ she said. “And if they are spending so much time feeling that they need to work more hours or are in a situation where they are, it’s distracting them from everyday school. That’s why there are rules in place and this is not the answer to what the Republicans have done to our economy when it comes to our migrant work force. There are better solutions and this is not it.”

Obviously, one key factor accounting for the labor shortage is the strong economy, which the GOP continues to insist is failing under President Joe Biden. Florida’s unemployment rate is 2.8%, lower than the national average of 3.9%, according to the Miami Herald. 

But there’s also Florida’s draconian immigration policies. In September 2022, DeSantis pulled a cruel political stunt by flying several dozen recently arrived migrants from Texas to Martha’s Vineyard, an island off the Massachusetts coast where former President Barack Obama has a summer home. Last year, the state legislature allocated $12 million for the transport of “illegal immigrants.” 

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In May, DeSantis boasted about signing one of the strictest immigration laws in the nation. It criminalized transporting undocumented workers into the state, invalidated any U.S. government identification or local ID cards they might have, mandated hospitals that receive Medicaid to ask about patients’ immigration status, and required businesses employing 25 or more people to verify their workers’ legal status.

The result was predictable. Business owners reported that experienced migrant workers afraid of being targeted and arrested at their workplaces began fleeing Florida for other states, while there were not enough new migrants coming into the state to replace them.

Florida could easily have accommodated migrants as it did for 125,000 Cubans during the 1980 Mariel boatlift. In 2021, nearly half of all Venezuelan immigrants in the U.S. lived in Florida, reflecting an immigration wave that sharply escalated after Nicolas Maduro became president in 2013.

But Florida Republicans are not about to change a bad immigration law. That would contradict efforts by Republicans nationally to use the “border crisis” to attack Biden. And now House and Senate Republicans are insisting that any bill to provide aid to Ukraine and Israel also include border security measures.

So Florida Republicans are now proposing a bill that would eliminate regulations that were originally put in place to prevent work from interfering with children’s health, safety, and education. David Metellus, the director of policy and politics at the Florida Immigrant Coalition, told the Miami Herald that he thinks the proposed legislation is a result of the harsh immigration law passed by the legislature earlier this year. “We think it’s not going to be benefiting the kids, it’s only going to be benefiting the corporations,” Metellus said. “It’s bailing out the Legislature for bad policy as well.”

Chaney didn’t even write the bill she’s sponsoring herself. A workers’-rights advocacy group, More Perfect Union, uncovered documents through the Freedom of Information Act that show the text for the bill was fed to her by the Naples, Florida-based Foundation for Government Accountability, a right-wing think tank that lobbied state legislatures across the country to loosen child labor regulations.

The conservative think tank euphemistically calls its program: “Empowering Teenagers Through the Power of Work.” The FGA’s biggest donor is billionaire Dick Uihlein, a major DeSantis donor, who has also funded election-denial efforts and other right-wing causes.

More Perfect Union reported that a lobbyist for FGA’s advocacy arm responded to a July 26 email from Cheney’s office requesting “some model legislation regarding youth worker freedom.” The lobbyist wrote in an Aug. 28 email: “Attached is draft language on the Youth Worker Freedom issue that Rep. Chaney expressed interest in to FGA.” In September, Chaney filed House Bill 49, a nearly verbatim copy of the FGA’s draft legislation.

The Economic Policy Institute, a liberal think tank, in a report titled “Child labor laws are under attack in states across the country,” wrote: “Children of families in poverty, and especially Black, brown, and immigrant youth, stand to suffer the most harm from such changes.”

The report, which was updated in June 2023, added:

“While federal agencies are ramping up enforcement of child labor protections in response to increasing violations, industry groups are working to roll back child labor protections via state legislation.

Already in 2023, seven bills to weaken child labor protections have been introduced in six Midwestern states (Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, Ohio, and South Dakota) and in Arkansas, where a bill repealing restrictions on work for 14- and 15-year-olds has now been signed into law. One bill introduced in Minnesota would allow 16- and 17-year-olds to work on construction sites. Ten states have introduced, considered, or passed legislation rolling back protections for young workers in just the past two years.

And now it’s Florida’s turn: On Wednesday, the House Regulatory Reform & Economic Development Subcommittee advanced the bill by a 10-5 party-line vote. It still must be approved by two other House committees before it can be brought to the floor for a vote. No companion bill has been introduced so far in the state Senate. The next legislative session begins on Jan. 9, 2024. Republicans hold an overwhelming majority in both chambers.

Seeking Rents, an online newsletter that examines the ways businesses influence public policy in Florida, reported that Chaney, who represents St. Pete Beach, a resort area near St. Petersburg, said she filed the legislation in part to provide more labor for Florida’s tourism industry. “Being in a tourist area of Florida and knowing the needs of the hospitality industry … I felt this was a common-sense bill,” Chaney was quoted as saying by Sinking Rents.

At Wednesday’s hearing, Samantha Padgett, a representative of the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association, spoke in favor of the bill, the Orlando Weekly reported.

“We believe the intent [of the bill] is not to erode the importance of education, but to reduce unnecessary and restrictive regulation, expand available staffing, and grow financial and career development opportunities for young Floridians,” she said.

Chaney defended her legislation, claiming that 16- and-17-year-olds “want to work.”

“This bill gets government out of their way to choose the path that is best for them,” she said.

But Democrats on the committee were having none of that and peppered Chaney with questions. Democratic Rep. Anna Eskamani said some jobs might potentially be risky such as working an overnight shift at a gas station or 7-Eleven convenience store. Chaney replied that the bill leaves it up to the teenager and their parents when or where they work. Eskamani then asked whether the child has to get parental consent to take that job if they’re 16 or 17. Chaney replied:  “No.”

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Democrats proposed six amendments to the bill, which were all voted down by the Republican majority. Rep. Angie Nixon, the mother of five children, including a 16-year-old, proposed two of the amendments. One amendment would have reestablished a state Department of Labor to help enforce child labor law. Lawmakers had abolished the Department of Labor in 2002.

The second would have required businesses that employ 16- and-17-year-olds to maintain a record of workplace sexual harassment incidents and provide them to the teen’s parents upon hiring. The Orlando Weekly wrote:

“I don’t know why anyone would not vote to ensure, again, that our children are safe and in a work environment that is free from sexual predators,” said Nixon.

“You know, we talk a lot about parental rights here in Tallahassee and this is key,” she said, referring to a talking point frequently brought up by Florida Republicans earlier this year in defense of anti-LGBTQ+ legislation.

That amendment was shot down too. (Apparently the “Protect the children” rhetoric stops when it comes to kids who are on the clock.)

Another amendment said that if older teens are mature enough to work, they should also be able to choose whether to have an abortion without parental consent.

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Jennifer Sherer, director of the State Worker Power Initiative at the Economic Policy Institute, told the Miami Herald that loosening child labor regulations could jeopardize the health and safety of teenagers because they would be prone to fatigue. She also said it would lead to more teens dropping out of high school.

Sherer added:

 “Are we committed as a society to ensuring equal opportunity, equal access to public education for every child no matter what their background is? Or are we willing to sort of open the door to going back to a world where a handful of wealthier children have full access to that kind of education and most others are in the workforce at younger and younger ages.”

Let’s give the last word to Robert Reich, who served as Secretary of Labor in President Bill Clinton’s Cabinet.  Reich describes how greed is driving corporations to bring back child labor in the U.S. and how their “Republican lackeys” are helping them get away with it

He outlines the steps that need to be taken to “stop this madness”: Increase funding for the Department of Labor; impose higher fines on companies that violate child labor laws; hold corporations accountable for abuses by their contractors who employ children; reform immigration laws; and finally, organize to fight against state laws that are attempting to bring back child labor.

He concludes by asking: “Are corporate profits really more important than the safety of children?”

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