If you have a seventeen-year-old daughter who plans to be a counselor at a local day camp this summer, should she need to obtain permission from the state to do that job? Massachusetts requires high school students to have a permit before they can secure summer employment. The state’s Division of Occupational Safety issues its permit through the local school superintendent, after the student submits a permit application that includes the student’s signature, parent’s signature, and prospective employer’s signature. If you are under sixteen, you need a physician’s signature as well.
The permit application comes with three pages of rules about what students fourteen through seventeen years old may not do on the job, when they may work, when they may not work, the number of hours they may work each day and each week, requirements for supervision and security, and of course the equipment young people may not operate. The list of prohibited activities is long. So is the list of restrictions on working hours.
I know these rules grow out of efforts to regulate child labor that date back to dangerous working conditions more than a century ago. Now we don’t let children step out of the house unsupervised, let alone send them off to a sweat shop to earn their daily bread. Do we want child labor laws in place more than one hundred years to make it extra hard to be a camp counselor at your local day camp?
First of all, a seventeen-year-old person can decide for herself what she wants to do in the summer. If parents believe the job their son or daughter has lined up is dangerous, they can intervene. The young adult’s safety does not depend on oversight from the commonwealth’s Executive Office of Labor and Workforce Development, Departement of Labor Standards.
Persons under sixteen may not work in amusement places, such as a billiard room or bowling alley. Yet no restriction exists, at any age, for mowing lawns or working as a lifeguard. These two jobs involve the most dangerous work a young adult is likely to perform. If you don’t know how to handle a lawn mower, you can mangle your foot. If you make a mistake as a lifeguard, especially at a lake, you can drown with the person you try to save. Because so many teenagers do these two jobs, the state’s regulatory apparatus doesn’t prohibit them.
To enforce the labor standards in place, state government requires an employment permit for every young adult who wants to work. Processing the employment permit application is not that simple. Employers must fill out a section on the first page of the permit application. If I’m an employer who does not routinely hire young people, as day camps do, I may say, “Sorry, I don’t want to deal with these labor standards. If state regulators want to cause me trouble, they’ll cause me trouble.” So the young person doesn’t even get the job.
We do so much to keep young people from working. We set a minimum wage so high, employers cut back on the number of young people they hire. We regulate workplace conditions and hours in such detail that employers don’t even want to take on those headaches. We require young people to run through bureaucratic obstacles so they can work legally. I look at the job market for high school students, and I wonder how any young people can work at all.