Child Actor Labor Laws, Explained

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Photo Source: “Good Boys” Credit: Ed Araquel/Universal

Navigating work as a child actor used to be as treacherous as a journey down the yellow brick road. While filming “The Wizard of Oz,” Judy Garland was made to work 72-hour shifts, and was even given amphetamines by MGM to maintain her pep. Thankfully, the curtain has been pulled back, and today’s labor laws provide better protections for underage performers than ever before. Here’s what you need to know about the rules and regulations that govern minors on set—no flying monkeys, we promise.


Are there federal laws protecting child actors?

Home Alone

“Home Alone” Courtesy 20th Century Fox

The earliest milestone regarding protections for child actors occurred in the mid-1930s and involved one of the most famous child actors at the time, Jackie Coogan. Coogan first gained fame when he starred alongside Charlie Chaplin in the 1921 classic “The Kid.” In the years that followed, Coogan continued to act and made millions of dollars. When he turned 21, however, he discovered that his mother and stepfather had spent the bulk of the money he had earned. 

In 1939, Coogan sued the couple and won, but he wasn’t able to recover the majority of his money. However, as a result of the case, the California state legislature enacted the Coogan Act (or Coogan’s Law). This law mandates that a trust fund be created specifically for a child actor to place a portion of their earnings; that portion cannot be touched until the actor turns 18. (The Coogan Act didn’t completely solve the problem. Loopholes could be found, and parents continued to casually steal from their children in covert ways (see: Shirley Temple, Judy Garland, and Macaulay Culkin). 

However, in 2000, the Coogan Act was updated to mandate that a minimum of 15% of gross income be saved. Additionally, parents and guardians were no longer allowed to access the fund, as it was now seen as the property of the minor. (The Coogan Act pertains only to California; many states don’t require child actors to set aside a portion of their income in a trust.) 

The Coogan Act is a labor law involving a child actor’s financial well-being, but what about working conditions? Interestingly, there is no federal law protecting child actors. In 1938, Congress passed the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), a labor law that established a minimum wage and time and a half overtime pay. It also regulated working conditions for children, including age standards, hours, and wages.

Several industries, including manufacturing and agriculture, were forced to abide by these laws. But one industry that was exempt from adhering to the FLSA was entertainment. As a result, each state was left to decide which child labor laws they wished to enact, if any.

Child actor rules and regulations

BTS of Sweet Tooth

Behind the scenes of “Sweet Tooth” Credit: Kirsty Griffin/Netflix

What rules and regulations must a child actor and/or production follow? They vary from state to state, but we’ll use the two states that do the most filming as our guide: California and New York. 

For anywhere else, the Department of Labor maintains a database of each state’s child entertainment laws. Currently, 17 states do not regulate child entertainment laws: Arizona, Kansas, Kentucky, Maine, Mississippi, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, Ohio, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Utah, West Virginia, and Wisconsin. 

Note: “Child” refers to anyone under the age of 18.

Working hours

In both California and New York, a child actor can work only a certain number of hours each day. A child’s age determines the number of hours. For example, in both states, an infant (under 6 months) is allowed to be on set for two hours a day but can only work (i.e., film) for 20 minutes a day.

Meanwhile, a child between the ages of 6 and 8 is allowed to be on set for eight hours, but can only work for four hours when school is in session. When school is not in session, they are allowed to work for six hours per day. 

In California, time spent in hair, makeup, and wardrobe is considered work.


In both states, a child actor must obtain a permit to work. Interestingly, some states that regulate child actors, such as Colorado and Idaho, do not require a minor to obtain a permit to work.


The decision to have an on-set educator varies from state to state. California and New York both require that three hours be set aside every working day for schooling. In California, the on-set teacher also acts as an extra guardian: they keep a close eye on the minor’s safety and well-being and will be at their side while in makeup and wardrobe. 

Meal and rest period

Like all SAG-AFTRA members, child actors have regulated meal breaks and rest periods while on set. In New York, for example, a 10-minute break must happen every four hours. In both states, a meal period must occur within six hours of the minor arriving at work. 

Parent or guardian

In California, a minor under the age of 16 must have a parent or guardian within sight and sound. Minors who are 16 or 17 can be on set unaccompanied. In New York, minors under 16 must have a guardian 18 or older on set who monitors their well-being. Also in New York, a guardian may look after more than one minor.


In New York, employers are required to give adequate safety and health instructions to both the minor and the parent or guardian. To ensure their safety when performing activities that are considered hazardous, minors must be given enough time to rehearse the hazardous activity.

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