Missouri allows hiring minors under age 16. Why don’t employers know?

You wouldn’t know it from asking most employers, but apparently, Missouri does allow hiring minors under age 16.  Have fun job hunting, though, if you’re under age 16.  My son has found one company in our town that will allow a 15-year-old to submit a job application.  Expanding the search to the nearby metropolitan area, we find two companies that will consider hiring a 15-year-old.

A few weeks ago, I took a wandering, sentimental journey through my high school jobs experiences.  I sorted through how I got those jobs in my small town Missouri teenage life. I work for my dad doing computer work in elementary school. Thereafter, I stepped into the local job market at age 13 and never looked back. I ended up working three different local jobs between the ages of 13 and 17.

Why are businesses in Missouri no longer hiring minors under age 16?

I now have two high schoolers of my own — age 15-year-old and a 17-year-old. Finding a job as a student is nothing like when I was a teenager in the 1980s and 1990s. Today, it seems that jobs are hardly available for high schoolers.  Student jobs outside restaurant and retail are extremely rare. On top of that, here in Missouri, almost all high school jobs are restricted to age 16 and up.

Let’s backtrack to that post about my high school jobs. When I was age 13, I was working at the local library. When I age 14 and 15, I was working at a law firm. Both positions were low skills high school jobs, but they were jobs that required an attention to detail. They taught me to show up consistently and do the work and do it correctly because the details mattered. I was a details kid who loved to read, so both of those jobs were perfect for me.

Why aren't employers hiring minors under age 16 in MIssouri?

The typical response: “We don’t hire under 16 years old.”

I recently reached out to the local library for my 15-year-old son. My son has heard my early job stories, and he is much like I was at his age. He thinks that working at the library would be a great first job outside the home. Why did I reach out to the library instead of him? Because I already knew the likely answer, and the standard answer has become frustrating for both him and me. Honestly, I was hoping my influence would help.

I reached out to the assistant director of the local library. I pitched my son’s skill set and his interest in working there and his availability to do so. What was the response? As expected, “We don’t hire under 16 years old. We would love to talk to him when he turns 16.”  My son and I have heard this line over and over from every employer we contact.

The library job I called about was the same basic job I did at my local library when I was age 13. Why would he need to be 16 years old to do the work that can be accomplished by a 13-year-old? Most people naturally think, “They don’t want to have to deal with high schoolers and immaturity, so they’ve set a higher age bar.” Maybe that’s partially the case, but you can weed out immaturity through a good application and interview process. What I’m finding to be the real issue is something more complicated: state law.

Missouri regulates (but does not prohibit) work for hiring minors under age 16

The Missouri statutes have all kinds of requirements about hiring minors under age 16 to work in the entertainment industry.  All of that makes sense based on what we’ve learned about the entertainment industry and its dealings with minors.

Hiring minors under age 16 requires a work permit from their school if they are working during the normal school year or during normal school hours.  That makes sense and is a good accountability process.  The work permit requirement is only for work hours during the school year.  Work permits are not required for a summer job.  Understandably, if the employment continued into the school year, a work permit will be required at that point.

Missouri statutes require that someone under the age of 16 can only work between the hours of 7 a.m. and 9 p.m.  Seems reasonable to me.

Minors under age 16 cannot work certain jobs, like meat cutting or working in refrigerators or door to door sales or dealing with alcohol, plus several other jobs that make sense to a reasonable adult.

Those under the age of 16 can’t work more than 3 hours on a school day, more than 8 hours on a regular work day, more than 6 days a week, and more than 40 hours a week.  Does anyone have any concerns about these kinds of rules?

Yes, hiring minors under age 16 is obviously regulated by this statute.  This kind of regulation makes sense, though, when you think about hiring minors under age 16 and potential pitfalls.  These types of regulations weren’t in place when I was that age.  I can see how this type of regulation deters employers from taking advantage of minors.  I find the policy and the mechanisms of these provisions to be reasonable and valuable and not overly burdensome.

Why avoid hiring minors under age 16 when the law allows it?

What I find most intriguing is that the statute actually allows the hiring of minors under age 16. The statute regulates hiring minors under age 16 but does not prohibit such employment. It sets boundaries as to what students under 16 can do as part of their high school job.  The boundaries set by the statute don’t even apply when you start looking for an office-type summer job. The library job, the law firm job and the newspaper job I had in high school would all be allowed under this statute.  So why aren’t these type of establishments now hiring minors under age 16?

The very existence of the Missouri statute regulating hiring minors under age 16 seems to have a chilling effect on employers. Employers are looking at the general concept and policy behind the statute — “be careful with what you do with employees under the age of 16”.  Employers are the creating a hiring policy that simply says that they will not hire anyone under age 16.  If you asked why they don’t hire under 16, they would cite Missouri law as the reason.  But as we have seen above, Missouri law allows hiring minors under age 16.

This statute seems to have inadvertently created an environment where, for the most part, only those 16 and above can attain a high school job.  But why? Maybe no one is reading the full law?

Is the problem created by how we explain the statute?

We lawyers typically explain the general rule of a statute and then explain the policy behind the law.  Then we then break out the exceptions that impact the rule.  From what I can tell, the general rule of this statute is being interpreted in a negative fashion.  The interpretation of the law that I hear from employers is “Generally you should not hire minors under the age of 16.”  That’s not really what the statute says.  The statute’s bottom line is actually something more positive.  The best way to explain the statute is to say “Hiring minors under age 16 is allowed, but pay attention to their hours and the jobs they perform.”

Have employers not actually read the Missouri statute that allows hiring minors under age 16? Maybe not.  Most employers probably went to a seminar, read something online, or were otherwise advised by a human resources professional (or their liability insurance professional) that you “generally should avoid hiring minors under age 16.” They were told that the safest way to hire “in order to avoid potential liability” was to only hire age 16 and above. And the person in charge of hiring at each place of employment took a brief mental note: “Only hire age 16 and above.”

Ultimately, employers who apply the negative interpretation of this statute end up blocking out those who are otherwise qualified. I have a 15-year-old son who would love to work for a good employer. He wants to show that he is responsible and make his own money and pay his own way.  Unfortunately, few to none will give him that opportunity. It seems most employers are afraid of hiring minors under age 16 for fear of risks and process.

Are we so concerned about avoiding risk that we don’t create opportunities?

One lesson to be taken away from this situation is for state legislators, legal professionals, and insurance professionals. While I am sure that intention of the legislation was to protect teens under 16 from being taken advantage of or injured in the workplace, I am guessing no one intended to almost completely block those under 16 from getting a high school job. The Missouri statute and the way we have explained the statute (and the way we have created a culture that avoids risk, liability, and process) have created a situation where hiring minors under age 16 has simply dried up, and such jobs are almost non-existent.

Another lesson to be learned from this situation is for business owners, employers, human resources staff and business leaders. Do not be so afraid of risk that you do not offer opportunities to those who need them. The local library (and most every other company my son has inquired with) has full ability to hire my motivated 15-year-old. Unfortunately, for whatever reason, they are viewing the general rule of this statute in a negative way.  The statute has no real impact on the jobs they could offer.  Why then have they implemented a limiting broad brush hiring policy without looking deeper into the rules?  Is it fear of risk? Is it avoidance of unnecessary process?  Whatever the reason, they are missing out on him and plenty of other teens looking for a high school job.

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