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Even with WI veto, some fear further weakening of child labor laws

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Despite a recent policy victory, Wisconsin labor leaders still express concern about the current environment for shielding young teens from unsafe work environments.

Gov. Tony Evers this month vetoed a bill which would have expanded the elimination of required work permits for those younger than 18. The bill's language applied to 14- and 15-year-olds, several years after the state did away with parental permission for 16- and 17-year-olds.

Stephanie Bloomingdale, president of the Wisconsin State AFL-CIO, said the recent debates are policy fights advocates thought they won decades ago when minors often worked in dangerous conditions. She cautioned there is a strong push to chip away at protections.

"We are seeing a growing movement from different, unscrupulous employers that want to put kids back in the workplace, and not have the kind of oversight that is needed," Bloomingdale contended.

The Economic Policy Institute said rollbacks have been approved in a dozen states in the past few years. While current efforts are thwarted in Wisconsin, Bloomingdale worries about similar debates in future sessions.

Meanwhile, violations are trending upward, with the U.S. Labor Department reporting an 83% increase in financial penalties. Backers of the Wisconsin bill said the goal was to reduce red tape for families.

Bloomingdale countered taking away another layer of protection does more to trample on the rights of parents and guardians. And with higher consumer prices placing more pressure on household budgets, she added some kids might feel the need to bring in additional income.

She emphasized the current law helps the whole family make an informed decision.

"It's important for kids to get a good work ethic," Bloomingdale acknowledged. "But at the same time, these kids need to make sure that they are getting enough sleep, that they are able to participate in their school, and really making sure that balance is there."

The Economic Policy Institute report showed amid the push in many states to weaken laws, several other states have advanced bills to strengthen protections. There have been bipartisan bills in Congress which, among other things, would crack down on violators.

Mike Moen is a radio news reporter with nearly two decades of experience in the field. He has covered much of the upper Midwest, including Minnesota, Illinois, Wisconsin and the Dakotas. Many of his stories have aired nationally, including several public radio programs.
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