18 year old Shamby Kumandon stands at his desk at the self-checkout station at the HyVee off of 27th street in Lincoln, Nebraska.
18 year old high-school student Shamby Kumandon chose to work at HyVee because he felt it was “welcoming.” Kumandon is saving his wages in order to buy a vehicle.

Nebraska State Sen. Carol Blood grew up on a farm, a place where she was expected to help out and where she learned the value of work.

Blood, who represents parts of Sarpy County, said learning the value of working in one’s teenage years is important, but she also had a caveat.

“There’s a difference between learning the work ethic, and being taken advantage of,” Blood said.

At the turn of the century, nearly 70% of youth aged 16-19 were either employed or seeking employment in the state of Nebraska. That number has been on a steady decline over the course of the last 20 years, with a low of 45.4% in 2020. However, with workforce shortages and workers demanding higher pay, employers and lawmakers in Nebraska are once again looking to youth.

Nationally, the story is similar. 

In Iowa, legislators recently passed a bill loosening the hours teens aged as young as 14 could work. Arkansas also recently rolled back a certification necessary for a business to hire children under the age of 16.

In Nebraska, the turn to youth labor is, according to the director of the William Brennan Institute for Labor Studies Jim Begley, primarily attributed to workplace shortages. Around 50,000 to 70,000 jobs go unfilled in Nebraska every year.

Begley attributes the workplace shortages to the lack of immigrant labor among other factors. Businesses desperate to fill jobs are forced to “think creatively” in Begley’s words in order to continue profits.

“We see an attempt to loosen child labor laws in individual states to bring more employees in,” Begley said. “Businesses are in desperate need to hire employees to fill these roles. I would say this is the main reason why they’ve attempted to roll back these laws.”

For Blood, the movement towards youth labor would negatively impact both child and adult laborers.

“There was a reason we started pulling children out of factories,” Blood said. “They were literally providing for their families. And because of that, we purposefully ignored the things that would’ve lifted up those families to put them in a different working class so that we could keep them in that lower class.”

According to Blood, hand in hand with the push to increase youth labor participation generally is also the ambition to have youth laborers work longer hours. For 14 and 15 year olds in the state of Nebraska, there are both state and federal laws that impose hour restrictions on teen workers. These get more restrictive on school days.

The logic that says 14 and 15 year olds should not work as long on school days does not extend to workers in the next age bracket. For teens aged 16 and 17, there are no maximum work hour restrictions.

According to Blood, the impact of loosening these restrictions would be that children working longer hours would get worse sleep and perform worse in school, a vicious cycle that results in worse life outcomes for youth laborers.

In Nebraska, measures similar to the ones passed in Arkansas and Iowa are not on the table. However, a recent bill, LB 327, introduced by State Sen. Jane Raybould of Lincoln, would institute carve-outs to the $15 minimum wage ballot initiative, also including revisions that would lower the minimum wage for minors.

Most youth laborers already make more than the minimum the bill suggested, Raybould said. She recalled a group of children working at Dairy Queen who spoke with her after the introduction of LB 327, who already made more than the amount that would be set by the bill.

“We’re just trying to keep the wheels on small businesses,” Raybould said about the $15 minimum wage ballot initiative and LB 327. “And small businesses would be impacted tremendously.”

Raybould also said youth laborers would not be kept at the reduced wage for long.

Some lawmakers and local labor leaders were critical of the bill. 

Susan Martin, President/Secretary-Treasurer of the Nebraska State AFL-CIO said in a statement that, “all workers should be protected by the full minimum wage, regardless of age.”

Senator Danielle Conrad was also critical of the bill.

“I filed a motion to kill the bill upon introduction as a bold strategy to protect economic justice for working families across Nebraska and honor the will of the people,” Conrad said in a statement. “The legislature should not be undermining their vote and should not be attacking working families.”

For Conrad, the concern is that making youth labor cheaper would lead to youth employment at the expense of the adults who were meant to benefit by the increase.

Begley is also skeptical that the push for youth labor would have the intended effect of lessening workplace shortages and depressing wages.

“In the short term it certainly could work,” Begley said. “But I would argue that, especially with the onset of the pandemic, workers are demanding higher wages, they’re demanding safer workplaces. I think this is another attempt by employers to get around that. I know that employers would like to roll back these child labor laws to help them, but in the long term I don’t think it’s a good solution for either the employer or the worker.”

Another problem is a misperception regarding youth laborers that their wages are spent on frivolous things. According to Blood, this tends not to be the case.

For Shamby Kumandon, an 18-year-old high schooler who works at the HyVee on 5020 N. 27th St. he first applied because he felt welcomed by the HyVee environment. Kumandon works around 20 hours a week and saves his money so that he can buy a car.

“I really like to make a lot of money,” Kumandon said. “If it (the minimum wage) went down, it wouldn’t be to my satisfaction.”

For Blood, the national push to increase youth labor also stems from a shift in values. 

“We’re valuing stuff and things, and not people,” Blood said. She said she struck a balance with her own children between their schoolwork and the extra income they gained off of work, careful to make sure their grades never dropped.

“I think it’s going to take a lot to pull out of this if people implement this. I think it sends the wrong message for our children,” Blood said. “And I think it’s also going to take away protections that we’ve worked for decades to put in place, to make sure people can make a living wage, work in a safe work environment, and that people feel valued.”