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Kids are back in school — do you know the rules?

By Ashley Cuttino, Ogletree Deakins

October 5, 2023

Across the nation the 2023-2024 school year is in full swing and parents and caregivers must juggle family responsibilities with job duties. During this time of year, there are many employment considerations for organizations to keep in mind. From leave entitlements to child labor laws, organizations should take an opportunity to get familiar with the laws of their state or locality.

Leave entitlements. As the school year progresses, employees may request time away from work to enroll their child in school or daycare, attend family conferences, volunteer at school functions or attend other school related activities. There is no standalone or general federal law requiring employers to provide school activity leave; however under the Family & Medical Leave Act (FMLA), covered employers are required to provide eligible employees with unpaid, job-protected leave for military qualifying exigencies, which may be used for certain school related activities and childcare purposes.

The following states/locality require some employers to provide school-related leave to employees. Employer coverage, employee eligibility, duration of leave, and whether the leave is paid will vary by location.

  • California
  • District of Columbia
  • Illinois
  • Massachusetts
  • Minnesota
  • Nevada
  • North Carolina
  • Rhode Island
  • Vermont

There are a few states that encourage, but do not require employers to provide leave for school activities. Additionally, under the general paid sick leave or earned paid leave requirements in a state or locality, eligible employees may be allowed to use accrued leave for school activities. Employers are encouraged to review the leave laws applicable to their locations to determine under what conditions they may be required to extend leave to attend school-related activities during work hours. Inevitably, the return to the classroom is coupled with employee absences due to the parent or caregiver missing work for their own illness or to provide care for a family member. Many states have earned paid leave or paid sick leave requirements which entitle employees to a defined amount of leave per year to recover from illness or to care for sick family members. Please note under several of the paid sick leave or earned paid leave laws, leave may also be used to provide care for a family member whose school or place of care is closed due to a public health emergency.

Child labor laws. Federal and state laws and regulations surrounding the employment of minors in the workplace can be a compliance landmine for organizations who are not familiar with the territory. Generally, the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) establishes 14 as the minimum age for employment for nonagricultural jobs, restricts the hours of work for minors under the age of 16, and prohibits minors under the age of 18 from working in hazardous occupations.

Additionally, all states have a minimum standard concerning minors in the workplace with established rules that prescribe the conditions under which minor employees may work such as the permitted duties, total hours worked per week and hours of work each day. In the last year, the Department of Labor (DOL) has increased its focus on child labor. In July 2023, the DOL released a statement reflecting between Oct. 1, 2022, and July 20, 2023, the DOL had concluded 765 child labor cases which found 4,474 children employed in violation of federal child labor laws and assessed employers with more than $6.6 million in penalties. In contrast, in the last year, many states have proposed legislation to relax child labor laws.

As a best practice with the heightened scrutiny from the DOL, coupled with the changing state law landscape, organizations should stay up to date on the current state of the law applicable to their workforce. Nevertheless, employers should keep in mind, when federal and state requirements are different, the employer is required to comply with the rules that provide the most protection to the employee. Even if your organization is not subject to a legal requirement to provide leave or ensure compliance with child labor laws, from an employee relations perspective, both the organization and the employees benefit when the organization has policies and procedures that take into consideration the challenges employees face when school is back in session. Having an established plan to combat these challenges could potentially prevent productivity issues, employee burnout, or even costly litigation.