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Idaho Policy Makes Youth Employment Opportunities Scarce

Idaho Policy Makes Youth Employment Opportunities Scarce

Ronald M. Nate, Ph.D.
July 19, 2023

When I was a 13-year-old suburban kid, I wanted to earn money. I went to grocery stores, restaurants, and gas stations to apply for jobs. None of my applications panned out. Sure, I did the occasional lawn mowing and yard clean-up jobs, but I wasn’t the entrepreneurial type, so the work and money were spotty at best.

Things changed in 1979 when I was 14 and my parents opened a Big O Tires store in Ontario, Oregon. I was employed (at well below the minimum wage) to do inventory, clean-up, and various odd jobs around the store. I was lucky; my parents were willing to employ an inexperienced, sometimes grumpy, and probably less-than-competent young employee at a bargain(?) wage. I was thrilled to get a paycheck, though. I learned how to show up on time, follow boss directives, and be a responsible worker. Over three years, I learned to become a tire buster, including farm split-rim tire work. All-in-all, looking back, I was probably overpaid. My parents, though getting the short end of the stick, saw their son learn how to work and grow and take other jobs through high school. The fact is, in that tire store, doing all that manual labor, something else happened; I decided I would go to college someday.

Youth employment is super-valuable for the youth, both in experience and finding a path in life. It can also fill the gaps for scarcity in labor when the economy is straining the limits of a work market — as it appears to be doing now. But all is not perfect. As is always the case, government regulations stand in the way of some good opportunities for markets to work in favor of the buyers, sellers, owners, suppliers, workers, and everyone else touched by the invisible hand of beneficial competition.

Over the last 85 years, the federal government has wielded a heavy hand in the youth employment market. The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) of 1938, though violating the Constitution, established wage and employment guidelines that have been piled on and enhanced over the decades. All states must follow the minimum standards of the FLSA but can add regulations and stipulations beyond — most states, including Idaho, do just that.

The FLSA prohibits youth from being employed in non-agricultural occupations before the age of 14 years old (so I’ll blame the feds for my failed job searches at age 13). There are exceptions for things such as paper routes, acting, and babysitting. For kids 14 and 15 years old, there are restrictions on hours per day and per week, the lateness of hours, and the types of work done. The restrictions are tighter on school days and weeks when school is in session. 

For those 16 and 17 years old, the restrictions are looser, but still constraining on youth labor opportunities. The laws permit more hours both during and outside of school times, but still limit the number and scope. Types of work are limited, too (no meat cutting, delivery driving, truck driving, or baler operating for those under 18). Once a youth reaches 18 years old, he or she is no longer subject to federal child labor provisions.

Let’s look at what Idaho piles onto these regulations. First the good news. Unlike other states, Idaho has no “prevailing wage” laws, no “meal requirement” laws, no “paid rest” requirements, and no employee certification regulations for youth. 

What Idaho does regulate, though, is a longer list of jobs young kids (less than 14 years old) cannot work. They are prohibited from factories, stores, restaurants, laundry, hotels, apartments, mines, and various other workplaces. Whatever jobs remain are prohibited during school sessions (regardless of hours) unless there is a school break of two weeks or more, including summers. No child younger than 14 may work earlier than six in the morning or past nine at night. (Idaho Statutes, 44-1301)

For kids under 16 years old, here’s an odd law that cannot possibly be enforced these days:

“No minor who is under sixteen (16) years of age shall be employed or permitted to work at any gainful occupation during the hours that the public schools of the school district in which he resides are in session, unless he can read at sight and write legibly simple sentences in the English language, and has received instructions in spelling, English grammar and geography and is familiar with the fundamental operations of arithmetic up to and including fractions, or has similar attainments in another language.”

Idaho Statutes, 44-1302

Just who is doing such verifications on 14- and 15-year-old kids working at a car wash?

Further, Idaho law prohibits employment of kids under 16 years old that exceeds nine hours per day and/or 54 hours per week when school is in session. And, similar to the younger kids, no 15- to 16-year-olds can work before six in the morning or after nine at night. (Idaho Statutes, 44-1304). The work prohibition for 16-year-olds during school hours is waived for farm work. Idaho’s ag lobby ensures farm jobs are treated differently in law than other jobs. 

While many of these regulations seem understandable, what is missing is the growing trend of homeschool and private school kids who do their studies outside of normal public school hours or don’t coincide with public school sessions of instruction. The law in Idaho needs revision for students who break the traditional mode of public schooling and would benefit from working outside its education schedules. 

Idaho should encourage the role of young, voluntary, and eager workers. If farms and other employers find it difficult to get workers at competitive wages, easing up the restrictions on youth who want to work would be a beneficial move for kids, businesses, and society while disincentivizing illegal immigration. The path to future productivity is often unlocked in those early years when kids have plenty of time on their hands and want to start earning some money. The law, while prohibiting exploitation, should not discourage any enterprising young kid who wants to work without sacrificing basic education. 

The Idaho Freedom Foundation applauds young, responsible Idahoans who want to learn, grow, and want to work. When education plans permit and kids are eager to work, Idaho law should never get in the way. We must revise Idaho law to provide liberty to youth employment outside of the traditional, public education-driven limitations and be more responsive to a young, dynamic workforce.  

Idaho Freedom Foundation
802 W. Bannock Street, Suite 405, Boise, Idaho 83702
p 208.258.2280 | e [email protected]
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