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Louisiana Republicans Love Child Labor, Hate Lunch Breaks

The Pelican State joins Texas and Florida in a race to the bottom to see who can stick it to workers the worst.

The Louisiana State Capitol in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
Chris Graythen/Getty Images
The Louisiana State Capitol in Baton Rouge

Nobody expects to find good government in what A.J. Liebling famously termed “the GRET Stet of Loosiana,” but it surprised me to learn that the Louisiana state legislature, or its lower chamber at any rate, recently weighed in against eating. Eating is a sort of religion in Louisiana, land of gumbo and shrimp etouffee. But the state House of Representatives last week voted 61-37 to repeal a law requiring employers to provide a 20-minute meal break to any minor who works more than five hours, or pay a $500 penalty.

The bill is part of a national trend by Republicans—who would have us believe they’re the party of the working class—to deny workers sustenance of any kind during the workday. Earlier this month I noted that Florida Governor Ron DeSantis signed a bill to prevent Miami-Dade County from requiring businesses to give agricultural and other outdoor workers water when the temperature rises above 95 degrees. That just spoils them! Texas Governor Greg Abbott had previously signed a similar bill. The only reason red states haven’t passed laws banning bathroom breaks is that the federal government, through the Occupational Health and Safety Administration, requires employers to allow them.

Republican state legislators particularly relish passing legislation to exploit child labor. The Louisiana bill, now before the state Senate, is sponsored by Roger Wilder III, a Republican freshman who owns 19 Smoothie King franchises scattered throughout Louisiana and the Deep South. Wilder told The Times Picayune/New Orleans Advocate that the teenagers who work for him (he calls them “young adults”) don’t want a lunch break, and that no such regulatory burden is imposed on his franchises in Mississippi. Wilder, his House bio states, was named Smoothie King Franchisee of the Year “an unprecedented 7 times since 2006,” and it wouldn’t surprise me if this bill wins him an eighth.

Ironically, when Wilder was running for the House last year he said, “I’m running for my kids, and your kids, and I say that because I want our kids protected.” Protecting kids turned out not to mean letting them eat. Wilder spoke instead of “the infiltration of the education system by these agendas to just undo the fabric of our Judeo-Christian society.” Let us turn now to Matthew 5:6: “Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness.” You won’t get a teenager to hunger and thirst if the boss gives him 20 minutes to scarf down a muffuletta and a Coke.

Writing in January, The Washington Post’s Lauren Kaori Gurley and Emmanuel Martinez observed that, prompted by labor shortages, fast-food franchises are “fueling a surge in child labor violations across the United States,” with some companies hiring children 13 or younger and others working 14- and 15-year-olds past 7 p.m., both violations of federal law. Even before the Covid epidemic, the United States was suffering an epidemic of illegal child labor, with violations more than tripling over the past 10 years. The problem is particularly acute for migrant children, Hannah Dreier reported last year in The New York Times, who work 12-hour days and overnight shifts in slaughterhouses and other dangerous workplaces—again, in plain violation of the law.

The enterprising Republican solution to proliferating labor violations is to repeal as many child labor protections as they can get their hands on. No child labor law, no child labor violation! Much of this effort is driven by a Florida think tank called the Foundation for Government Accountability, which receives funding from various reactionary nonprofits, including the Bradley Foundation. Since 2022, nine states have passed laws to weaken child labor protections, including Florida, Iowa, and Michigan. Earlier this month Democratic Governor Tony Evers of Wisconsin vetoed a Republican-backed bill that would have required employers to secure work permits to employ 14- and 15-year-olds. Not to be outdone, in Congress, Representative Dusty Johnson, Republican of South Dakota, introduced a bill last summer (“the Teenagers Earn Necessary Skills Act”) to expand from 18 to 24 the number of hours that minors are permitted to work during the school year, and to extend permissible nighttime work hours to 9 p.m., up from the current limit of 7 p.m. “If a high school student can play in a football game until 9 p.m.,” Johnson said in a prepared statement, “or play video games late into the evening, they should also be allowed to hold a job.”

I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again: The Republican fetish for child labor is bad politics for the GOP and good politics for Democrats. There is, so far as I can tell, no constituency for exploiting child labor, except for a few management ghouls. A Democratic Party that can’t defeat a GOP grown nostalgic for the days, more than a century ago, when children labored in glassworks, tenement sweatshops, coal mines, and copper mills is a Democratic Party that just isn’t trying.