What Does Kentucky’s Teenage Work Bill Actually Do?

Why don’t Kentucky Democrats want teenagers to work?

A teenager’s first job teaches valuable life skills, including money management, communication, responsibility, and decision-making. It’s long been a milestone for many Americans, one of many important ones on the way to adulthood.

But currently, Kentucky has restrictions in place that stand in the way of teenagers fully experiencing the benefits of employment—restrictions that exceed federal child labor laws. Federal law does not restrict the number of hours 16- and 17-year-olds may work per week. Kentucky currently grants the state’s labor department the ability to promulgate its own regulations on work hours for teens, which has led to unequal opportunities among teenagers. Right now, 16- and 17-year-olds need to ask permission to work extra hours. This is a decision that bureaucrats need not be part of—just parents and their children.

HB 255, under consideration in the Kentucky General Assembly, aims to remove barriers to work for teenagers in the Bluegrass State by bringing Kentucky law regarding teenage work hours in line with federal law. This bill would allow 16- and 17-year-olds to work the same hours and times of day as 18-year-olds without needing to get special permission.

It’s a commonsense policy that would be a big win for young Kentuckians, so of course, the Left is engaging in outlandish fearmongering about it. So, let’s dive a little into what this bill actually does:

Kentucky teenagers are still protected at work.

The Left’s favorite claim, when it comes to removing barriers to work for teenagers, is that any easing of restrictive state labor laws is an erasure of child labor laws. Opponents like to conjure up images of children working to exhaustion in coal mines or in turn-of-the-century textile factories. This merely points to the Left’s flair for the dramatic but also their clear (and perhaps intentional) misrepresentation of reforms like HB 255.

This bill has nothing to do safety standards and everything to do with eliminating excessive state regulations. It doesn’t give license to employers to exploit or abuse teenage employees—that still violates both state and federal labor laws. It merely requires Kentucky’s policies regarding teenage work to align with federal law.

It does help address a serious labor shortage.

It’s no secret that Kentucky continues to face a debilitating labor shortage. There are 74 available workers for every 100 open jobs, meaning more jobs are available than people looking for work. Despite that, the unemployment rate continues to rise.

The labor participation rate for teenagers has mostly fallen for the last several decades, too. In 1979, around 58 percent of teenagers worked a part-time job. In 2023, the teenage labor participation rate was just 37 percent.

Removing barriers will make it easier for teenagers who want to work to do just that—work. And in the process, it will help keep Kentucky’s economy moving forward.

It can lead to more positive outcomes for teenagers.

The Left claims HB 255 would result in higher high school dropout rates, but there is little evidence that having a job outside of school hours leads to major increases in dropping out.

If anything, working as a teenager has led to positive outcomes for this demographic. Teenagers who work have higher earnings in adulthood and end up having higher graduation rates and improved grades compared to their peers who do not work. Further, studies have shown that teenagers who work over the summer are significantly less likely to commit crimes.

Other states with similar policies, like Texas, Wisconsin, and West Virginia—have laws that mirror federal law on work hours for teens and some of the highest public high school graduation rates in the country. This flies in the face of the Left’s baseless argument that more work flexibility means poorer educational outcomes.

Governor Beshear attempted to rattle Kentuckians when he claimed that the law would “allow employers to require that teenagers work during the school week and school time.” The claim is outrageous and wrong—for one thing, employers can’t force a teenager (or an adult) to work, and they especially couldn’t require teenage employees to skip school in order to work. Compulsory school attendance laws would remain in full effect under HB 255.

HB 255 does create opportunities for Kentucky teenagers.

If you listen to the Left, you might think this bill will force teenagers to drop out of school and work 20 hours per day in a coal mine or textile mill. But the Left is willfully ignoring this reform’s reality, impact, and simplicity for the sake of a partisan win—but who actually wins when the state restricts teenage work unnecessarily?

Certainly not teenagers, employers, or our commonwealth. HB 255 would represent a positive change to allow teenagers to more fully embrace employment while doing nothing to loosen federal child labor laws. That first job is an important milestone that can potentially change lives. Lawmakers should support this effort to create opportunity and remove barriers to work for Kentucky’s teenagers.