House Concurrent Resolution 58 asks the state to review the current youth work permit system.

Child labor laws in the state are being reviewed by the Department of Labor and Industrial Relations this legislative session in an effort to determine if Hawaii has the right mix of opportunities for kids as well as sufficient legal protections for them. 

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Work-based learning opportunities, like those being discussed in House Concurrent Resolution 58, can help students gain valuable career knowledge and experience.

Those in favor of work-based learning, such as the Hawaii Work-Based Learning Policy Hui and Hawaii Kids Can, argue that students gain early hands-on experience in the career field of their choosing, which may better prepare them for the day they join the workforce. 

The DILR does not explicitly oppose the resolution but did submit testimony asking that another agency handle this task, due to staff shortages. 

HCR 58 asks the DLIR to review the current youth work permit system to see what types of barriers it may be creating for work-based learning opportunities and for research to be made as to how to streamline more opportunities for the state’s youth.  

Career and Technical Education is what these types of work-based learning programs are called by the Department of Education. The programs are funded through Perkins V, also known as the Strengthening Career and Education for the 21st Century Act, and according to the DOE website, nearly $1.4 billion is invested into them annually. 

Kea'au High School students head to their classes.
The term child labor often evokes images of youth forced to work in mines and other hard situations. But the Department of Labor and Industrial Relations is being asked to review Hawaii’s current youth work permit system to determine if it’s putting up barriers to useful work-based learning opportunities. (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022)

The study also requests that the DLIR specifically study how other states with fewer certification requirements for minors are able to ensure access and oversee their own work-based learning programs. 

The U.S. Department of Labor currently lists each state’s youth work permit practices and there are variances across the board. Some states, such as Kentucky, don’t require any permits for youth workers. Employers who hire minors regardless of whether they require permits or not still need to follow federal labor laws and child labor laws.

Hawaii currently mandates that youth 17 and younger obtain an age certificate before being able to work.

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At the committee hearing, DLIR Deputy Director William Kunstman said about 11,000 child labor certificates are issued each year by organizations ranging from retail stores to veterinary centers. But they primarily involve kids working in the food service industry.

According to an email from Kunstman, the food service industry was the industrial sector with the most child labor investigations, too, with 21 taking place between July 2021 and June 2022.

“That not only includes your 14- and 15-year olds, but also minors in theatrical employment,” Kunstman said. “So every time there is a TV show or a film, they have to come in and get a permit.” 

During a follow-up phone interview, Kunstman said he didn’t believe that there were currently any barriers stopping students from pursuing work-based learning programs, since certain exemptions are already in place for them as long as they are following the legal requirements. 

Minors who participate in the programs that are a part of the Department of Education are exempt from having to get a work permit. However, the program would still need to adhere to child labor laws that regulate pay as well as constrain how long and when a minor can work. 

“These things that are required are not a burden in our perspective,” Kunstman said, “as long as the Legislature and all the people affected by this, the minors and their parents and everybody else is in agreement” that the current laws are sufficient.

David Sun-Miyashiro supports HCR 58 as the founding executive director of Hawaii Kids Can and a former public school teacher. Sun-Miyashiro said the reason he believes in work-based learning is that there are societal issues, including cost of living, that make it difficult for people to live in the state. 

“The reason we really believe that students really need those experiences and support is because it’s kind of a matter of survival,” Sun-Miyashiro said. “If we want students to be able to thrive here for their foreseeable future, they are really going to need to be equipped with the skills and connections to stay.” 

The words child labor often conjure up images of children working in factories and mines, he said, but with modern advances in technology, a multitude of career options are available for students.

The CTE program in Hawaii, which is overseen by the DOE, offers 13 different pathways of study that cover a range of sectors such as energy, education, information technology, agriculture, public safety and arts and entertainment. 

“This isn’t the 1920s where kids are working in factories,” Sun-Miyashiro said. “But it is exposure, especially for under-represented groups of students, like girls, Native Hawaiians, students of color.” 

At exactly what age a youth should start focusing on their career remains unclear, Sun-Miyashiro said. That is something DLIR will have to reflect upon, but for him, safety is the top priority, he said.

He did, however, mention that he has received feedback from schools that there is more interest in getting kids interested in career training at the middle school age range.

“(If we) let them have the hands on learning out at the actual job site, I think that’s so powerful,” Sun-Miyashiro said, “because they can see for themselves what it’s like and also make connections with potential mentors, and I think that’s why it’s so exciting.” 

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