Legislation advancing in the West Virginia House of Delegates would repeal the work permit process for young people seeking employment.

Supporters of House Bill 5159, which passed 83-16 on Tuesday, say the legislation is meant to take away an onerous process for kids who want jobs and give parents authority over whether their kids can work.

State law currently allows kids to work starting at age 14, but those under 16 must get a work permit from the school superintendent with the following: a written statement by the employer that intends to hire the child, a short written description of the job the child will do, a birth certificate, a certificate from the child’s principal showing that the child is attending school and written consent of the child’s parents.

If the bill was passed, the child would need only an age certificate, such as a birth certificate, to work. The legislation also shifts the issuance of age certificates from the state superintendent of schools to the state commissioner of labor.

The bill’s lead sponsor, Del. Michael Hite, R-Berkeley, said his goal is to take the school system out of the decision-making process for students seeking to work and give it to parents. 

“I think that should be a parent’s decision,” Hite said. “And I would rather see it rest with the parents. There are a lot of things that kids do that they don’t have to get permission from a principal or somebody in the school, that their parents every day make those decisions for them. So this is just one more thing that I think should be with the parents and their decision.”

The bill originally did not require parental consent, but a committee amendment added parental consent to the age certificate process. Hite said he thought parental consent was implied in the bill and did not need to be explicitly said, but agreed to the amendment. 

The conservative organization Foundation for Government Accountability has reportedly been pushing for the weakening of child labor laws in other state legislatures. Hite said he is familiar with the organization and that a representative contacted him to talk with him about it. 

“But this is something that I wanted to push forward,” he said. “I have kids and I’ve allowed my kids to work in concession stands… or at the rec center keeping score or things like that. I think it was good for them and they learned the value of money by doing that. So that was the reasoning for that.” 

Anne Lofaso, a law professor at West Virginia University said repealing the work permit process would make it faster to hire young people, but it may also open children up to the potential of being exploited. 

“I’m not suggesting that all parents do this, and my view is that most parents are really good, but who cares if you have the parents’ permission if they’re exploiting their children?” Lofaso said. “The reason we have child labor laws is because we had a history, like most industrialized countries that were industrializing, of using children in coal mines and dangerous jobs and lots of things. And that we don’t want that.”

Lofaso said repealing the work permit process would be a “slippery slope” toward child labor exploitation, an idea that Hite rejected. 

“We’re still resting this with the decision of a parent,” he said. “So parents get to make these decisions every day. And this is just allowing them to make that decision for their child. Parents can say, ‘No — you don’t have the grades or you’re not performing at home’….This doesn’t harm any other child labor laws, so I don’t see this as being a slippery slope at all.”

Lofaso said repealing the work permit process would also put downward pressure on wages because younger people do not demand higher wages because they’re not breadwinners in their families.

“So if you can get students to work and much older people who are on Social Security, there’s always a downward pressure on wages, so what they’re doing really, is probably just keeping wages down.”

Speaking against the bill Tuesday, Del. Elliott Pritt, R-Fayette, a teacher, said the legislation may open a child up to being taken advantage of by a parent. 

“Those of us who teach, especially high school age, have had students whose parents take advantage of the fact that their child works and take all their child’s earnings,” Pritt said. “Are we factoring that into play? Right? We obviously have a whole lot of parents making bad decisions in West Virginia because we have… greater than 6,000 children in foster care.”

He went on to say that while West Virginia has a labor force participation problem and issues with employment, “I don’t think that opening up the labor force to 14 year olds in eighth grade is the answer to the problems that we have.”

Supporters of the bill have also touted it as a way to encourage a sense of work ethic among young people.

“Many of us in this room probably worked when we were 12, 13, 14 years old out on the farm baling hay, digging post holes, whatever we were doing,” said Todd Longanacre, R-Greenbrier. “And if there’s one thing kids need today in our society, is to start learning work ethic at an earlier age not a later age. This is a good bill. Let’s let those kids get to work.” 

The bill will next go to the Senate for consideration. 

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