Working Underage in the United States
In the United States it’s commonly believed that young people can start working “real” jobs around the age of 15 or 16. But you may be surprised to learn that youth can legally work at any age, depending on the job and consent of their parents.
For example, minors who work in agriculture or on farms owned or operated by their legal guardians are legally allowed to work at any time and any age. There are also no age restrictions for performing in movies, theater or television, newspaper delivery, chores, babysitting, and, strange as it may sound, working to make evergreen wreaths. (Yes, the law specifically states that children may gather materials and work to create decorative evergreen wreaths). Kids of any age can legally hold these jobs.
Beyond the exceptions mentioned above, the rules vary depending on where you live, type of job, number of hours, and age of the young person being employed.
Working Under 12 Years of Age
Workers under 12 who have parental consent are legally allowed to work non-hazardous jobs on small farms.
Working Under 14 Years of Age
Workers under the age of 14 may:
- deliver newspapers to customers
- babysit on a casual basis
- work as an actor or performer in movies, TV, radio, or theater
- work as a homeworker gathering evergreens and making evergreen wreaths
- work for a business owned entirely by their parents as long as it is not in mining, manufacturing, or any of the 17 hazardous occupations
Youth under the age of 14 may also do non-hazardous agricultural work, though in general they may only work outside of normal public school hours for their area and must have parental consent.
Working Between 14 or 15 Years of Age
When you are 14 or 15 your options increase but you’re still limited by what types of work, hours, and pay you can receive. For example, all work must be performed outside school hours (based on your nearest public school) and there are limits on those hours depending on the school day and/or week. You can also legally be paid the youth minimum wage ($4.25 per hour) for the first 90 days of your employment.
Jobs you can do between the ages of 14 and 15:
- retail occupations
- intellectual or creative work such as computer programming, teaching, tutoring, singing, acting, or playing an instrument
- errands or delivery work (not driving)
- clean-up and yard work (which does not include using power-driven equipment)
- working with cars and trucks including dispensing gasoline or oil and washing or hand polishing
- some kitchen and food service work
- Working with produce as long as it’s not in a freezer or meat cooler
- loading or unloading objects for use at a worksite
- 14 and 15-year-olds who meet certain requirements can perform limited tasks in sawmills and woodshops; and lifeguard duties at traditional swimming pools and water parks
- Non-hazardous agricultural work
Work when you are 16 or 17 years old
At this age you can work as many hours as you want and, for the most part, you must be paid at least the federal minimum wage, though employers can still legally pay you the youth minimum wage for the first 90 days of any new job you take on. That said, the working world is your oyster as long as the job is not deemed hazardous by the Secretary of Labor.
For a list of hazardous jobs, look here.
Finally, it’s worth noting that some states have limitations on youth workers that are stricter than the national standard. In cases where state laws different from federal laws, the higher standard wins. Be sure to check the requirements set by the state where you want to work.
The U.S. Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) is very specific about what’s required for youth workers of various ages. Details are available on the Department of Labor’s website for young workers, youthrules.dol.gov.