Work Permits for Minors: What You Need to Know

What you need to know if you're under 18 and want to start working.

By , Attorney (Widener University Delaware Law School)

The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) is the federal law that regulates minimum wage, overtime pay, and child labor. When it comes to child labor, the FLSA sets out what types of jobs that minors—those under 18—can do and the number of hours that minors can work. Federal law does not, however, require minors to obtain a work permit in order to hold a job, although many states impose such a requirement.

What this means is that if you're a young person looking for a job—or an employer looking to hire one—you need to check the laws of your state to ensure you're following the law.

The Fair Labor Standards Act and Child Labor

The FLSA regulates the types of jobs that minors can do by taking into consideration the age of the minor and the nature of the work. In general, the FLSA provides that:

  • minors who are at least 16 years old can do any type of work unless it's hazardous, and
  • those who are 14 or 15 years old can do some jobs with limited hours.

According to the Secretary of Labor, hazardous jobs often involve:

  • mining
  • slaughtering and meat packing
  • working with explosives or engaging in excavating activities
  • operating certain power-driven machines and tools
  • wrecking and demolition activities
  • manufacturing tile and brick, and
  • roofing activities.

There are also special rules that apply to minors who do agricultural work. Children employed by farms that are not owned by their parents, for example, are not permitted to work during the school day and may need parental consent for certain jobs.

Does the FLSA Apply to All Child Labor?

Not all minors are covered by the FLSA. There are exceptions for:

  • newspaper carriers
  • child performers or actors
  • children under the age of 16 who do nonhazardous work for their parents, and
  • children younger than 16 who are involved in apprenticeships and training programs.

Outside of the FLSA's general guidelines, child labor is regulated by the state in which you work. This includes whether you will need a work permit to get a job.

What Is a Work Permit?

In most states, a work permit is necessary for anyone under the age of 18 to become legally employed. The purpose of this document is to ensure that the minor is not underage and is physically fit to work.

State laws vary, but a work permit generally consists of an employment certificate or an age certificate, or both.

An employment certificate shows that the minor meets the state's criteria for employment, which might include a doctor's note indicating that the minor is cleared medically. An age certificate, on the other hand, simply provides proof of the minor's age.

Do not get lost in the terminology. Many states issue one document that covers all the things that a minor would need to get a job, whether it's called a work permit, work certificate, or employment certificate.

Do I Need a Work Permit, and How Do I Get a Work Permit?

The best way to determine if you need working papers is to check the U.S. Department of Labor's helpful state-by-state guide to work permits.

Work permits are normally issued by school guidance counseling departments and state labor departments. Your school's guidance counselors will most likely have work permit applications on hand and should be able to answer all your questions. Applications and further guidance can also be found online; check the website of your state's department of labor.

What Do I Need to Apply for a Work Permit?

Remember, each state has its own set of rules and regulations, but in most cases you will need:

  • an application in which you provide personal information such as your Social Security number and date of birth
  • proof of a recent physical or a doctor's note
  • identification documents such as a birth certificate, passport, driver's license, state issued photo ID, or passport, and
  • the signature of your parents or guardian on the application.

In California, for example, the application needs to be completed by the minor, parent, and prospective employer. The employer will need to describe the nature of the work, and the number of hours the minor will work per day and per week.

New York color-codes working papers depending on whether the minor is 14 to 15 years old, 16 to 17 years old and in school, or 16 to 17 years old and out of school. The original employment certificate must be given to the employer and returned at the end of the job. Employers are not permitted to take photocopies.

Most states have a different set of rules and paperwork for agricultural, entertainment, and newspaper delivery jobs.

Before You Start Working

If you are a teenager looking to enter the working world, a good place to start is the federal government's YouthRules! website. This site is designed to educate young workers and their parents on everything from workplace safety to wage and hour laws.

One thing to keep in mind is that employers can have their own age and hour requirements so long as they do not conflict with state and federal law. You might be a mature 15-year-old who is ready to balance school and work, but to work at many fast food chains, for example, you need to be at least 16 years old.

Finally, while most teenagers now conduct their job hunt online, don't underestimate the value of visiting the places you want to work and trying to chat with the manager about any openings. A friendly smile and firm handshake can help you stand out from the crowd.

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