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Arkansas Gov. Sanders signs measure rolling back child labor protections

The bill eliminates a requirement that the state verify the age of children under 16 before companies can hire them.
Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders speaks after taking the oath outside the Arkansas Capitol on Jan. 10, 2023, in Little Rock.
Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders after taking the oath outside the Arkansas State Capitol on Jan. 10 in Little Rock.Will Newton / AP

Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders signed a measure this week loosening child labor protections in the state.

Under the law, the Youth Hiring Act of 2023, children under 16 do not have to obtain permission from the Division of Labor to get a job. They will no longer need to get an employment certificate, which verified their age, described their work and work schedule, and included written consent from a parent or guardian. Sanders signed the bill into law on Tuesday.

Alexa Henning, Sanders' communication director, said that the permit requirement had placed an "arbitrary burden on parents" who needed government permission for their child to get a job.

"All child labor laws that actually protect children still apply and we expect businesses to comply just as they are required to do now," Henning wrote in a statement to NBC News.

The move comes as the Biden administration has sought to crack down on child labor after media reports, including by NBC News, on the employment of minors, sometimes in grueling and dangerous jobs. It also comes as as several other states consider legislation to undo child labor laws.

Last month, the Labor Department announced it had found more than 3,800 children working at U.S. companies in violation of federal law. More than 100 children, some as young as 13, were working hazardous overnight jobs cleaning slaughterhouses for Packers Sanitation Services Inc., one of the country's largest food sanitation companies, the Labor Department said. Some of them used "caustic chemicals to clean razor-sharp saws," the department said. Ten of the violations occurred in Arkansas.

Since 2018, there has been a 69 percent increase in the number of children employed illegally by companies, the Labor Department said.

Critics of the new Arkansas measure argue it would eliminate protections at a time when children are increasingly being exploited by companies.

“It increases the likelihood that kids will end up in dangerous jobs," said Reid Maki, director of child labor advocacy at the National Consumers League. He added that the surge in reported child labor law violations makes it a "very odd time" for Arkansas to weaken protections.

“Just because there’s a shortage of workers doesn’t mean you can turn your back on almost 100 years of child labor law and start hiring kids, especially for dangerous jobs, which is what we’re seeing happen increasingly in the country," Maki said. "That doesn’t make any sense.”

Andrew Collins, a Democrat in the Arkansas House of Representatives, said the bill “increases the risk that there will be abuses and violations of other child labor laws” by removing the requirement for parental consent for a child to work.

“It was presented as somehow prioritizing parents, but I think it removes parents from the process,” Collins told NBC News.

Other states are also considering legislation to unravel child labor protections. One bill advancing in the Iowa legislature would allow 14-year-olds to perform some work in freezers and meat coolers and would allow children under 16 to work up to six hours a day while school is in session. It would also exempt businesses from civil liability if a student in a work-based study program is sickened, injured or killed because of the company’s negligence. The Minnesota bill would let 16- and 17-year-olds work construction jobs.

Earlier this year, Republican leaders in Congress selected Sanders to deliver the party's response to President Joe Biden's State of the Union address. Sanders previously served as press secretary for former President Donald Trump.