Plan to lower working age raises debate over parents’ ability to make decisions for their children

By Matthew Young, RealWV

CHARLESTON, W.Va. – “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.”

That’s what Del. Elliott Pritt, R-Fayette, told colleagues on Tuesday regarding a bill designed to remove school officials from the decision making process regarding minors working during non-school hours. 

Introduced by Del. Michael Hite, R-Berkeley, HB 5159 would remove the requirement for students to acquire work permits from their school, leaving the child’s parents as the sole arbiter of consent. The bill would also lower the legal working age from 16 to 14-years of age. 

“What are we doing here with this?” Pritt asked. “I have students in eighth grade that are 14-years-old. What about the parents who give students of that age permission?”

“Those of us that teach have had students, especially high school age, whose parents take advantage of the fact that their child works, and takes all of their child’s earnings,” Pritt continued. “Are we factoring that in?”

Speaking in favor of the bill was Del. Todd Longanacre, R-Greenbrier, who, similar to Pritt, works in public education. 

“I appreciate those comments, but I must say that many of us in this room probably worked when we were 12, 13, 14-years-old,” Longanacre said. “If there’s one thing kids need today in our society, it’s to start learning work ethic at an earlier age, not a later age.”

While prospective student-workers would no longer be required to obtain a working permit from their school, they would be required to provide the employer with an age verification certification from the State Commissioner of Labor. Parental consent would be required for any child seeking such a certification. 

According to Del. Chris Phillips, R-Barbour, all federal laws pertaining to child labor would still be in place and enforceable, noting that, “The bill has no impact on safety standards.”

Del. Larry Rowe, D-Kanawha, then questioned Phillips about what he called “gatekeepers,” asking, “If we get rid of the (work) permit process, is there any advocate for the child?”

“Yes, the child’s parents, who should be their primary advocate,” replied Phillips. 

“But only the parents, and of course they may have a financial benefit in all this,” Rowe said. “It seems like the school system is a gatekeeper for the requirements of the act (students working). But if we’re going to eliminate the system of review prior to the work, there’s not going to be any gatekeeping. The kid will just be sent out to work.”

In response to Rowe’s comments, Phillips doubled down, saying, “Yes, the school system will no longer be the gatekeeper. That will be up to the parents to determine what’s in the best interests of their children.”

“So we’re relying completely on the parents to do whatever review of legality or propriety or the educational requirements of the child – that will be solely the review of the parents?” Rowe then asked.

“Yes,” Phillips said. “That is the parent’s job in my view.”

The House of Delegates passed HB 5159 by a vote of 83 to 16. While Del. Hollis Lewis, D-Kanawha, voted in favor of passage, all other Democrats voted against. Republican Delegates Cannon, Foggin, Heckert, Kirby, Pritt, and Shamblin also voted against passage. The bill will now be referred to the Senate for further consideration. 

RealWV will provide updates as to the progress of HB 5159 as additional information is made available. Houe bill to lower working age

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