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Katherine McCabe / Gavel Media

Moving Back in Time with Wisconsin's New Labor Laws

Wisconsin has proposed a bill allowing businesses to schedule teenage employees under the age of 16 to work as late as 9:30pm on a school night and 11pm on weekends (or days when they do not have school the next day). Currently, teenagers of this age are only allowed to work until 7pm between Labor Day and May 31st, regardless of whether or not it is a school night, and until 9pm during the summer months. The state senate is proposing this change following a nationwide staff shortage, and this is Wisconsin’s attempt to help small businesses in these trying times. 

Since the country has begun opening back up, many workers have stayed home or found new jobs as they realized how underappreciated their work was. Not only were they underpaid, but they were forced to work long, unreasonable hours leading to a severe decline in mental health. One major sector that was affected by this new shortage was the restaurant industry, as servers, bartenders, and cooks realized that the work they were doing was extremely stressful and burdensome.

How are restaurants making up for this employee shortage? They are choosing to hire children who often do not have the courage to stand up for themselves, especially if this is their first job. Children in Wisconsin are able to work at as young as 14 years old, which is the federal minimum age requirement and is used by many states. That being said, many states recognize that these children are beginning to work while still participating in various developmentally important after-school programs, and therefore keep the hours children are able to work at a minimum. This is the first time that kids are learning to balance school and work and remain successful in both of them. Wisconsin’s new proposal is pushing this limit to a dangerous level. 

Restaurant owners have argued in favor of this proposal because it is unfair to their other teenage employees over the age of 16 when they have to send home their coworkers once the clock hits 7pm. They cannot hire employees to cover the rest of the shift because it would be unfair to the workers that have to come in that late in the evening. While this does put them in a difficult position, they should just look for employees over the age of 16 to avoid the entire situation. 

Kids of this age are not going to question their starting wages or extreme hours as easily as an adult would with the same position. Employers can take advantage of this and work the children to their limits for low wages. Most assume that the kids are making money for movie tickets instead of providing for their families, so it is unimportant if they are only paid minimum wage, if that. This is not always the case. The modification of Wisconsin’s labor law highlights this manipulation, as lawmakers are encouraging employers to continue paying the teenagers low wages instead of increasing earnings and attracting adults. 

Not only does this proposal infringe upon the kids’ ability to participate in other activities, it also puts parents in a very precarious position. If the children working until 11pm are under the age of 16, they will not have a driver's license to get themselves to and from the job. This then requires parents to pick up their children at late hours or arrange for a carpooling situation that could be inconvenient. Many can’t wait until they are old enough to have a license. While that would be ideal in a lot of situations, some children need to work to provide for their families as soon as they can. If their parents have other children to look after, it is much easier to pick their child up from work at 7pm than 11pm, or even 9:30pm. 

As someone who has worked in the restaurant industry since the age of 14, I immediately considered the potential for an employer to push their limits, encouraging a child to stay overtime just to finish bussing that “one last table”. They know that the child is not going to sue the company, so asking them to stay another 15 or 20 minutes is not a big deal. However, asking a child to stay until 11:30pm is a lot different than asking them to stay until 7:30pm. The child is not going to argue, because they want to keep their job and stay on their boss’s good side. They may end up becoming overworked and underappreciated.

While it is easy to understand why Wisconsin wants to help these small businesses who have lost the majority of their employees since the pandemic, their main goal is transparent. They want to help the businesses continue paying low wages and taking what they can get at the lowest price possible. Increasing the time that children are able to work is both manipulative and disheartening. I feel sorry for those in the restaurant industry as they struggle to find employees, but taking advantage of children is not the way to go about it. 

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