PICKERINGTON, Ohio (WCMH) – Mike Todd has enough ice cream machines but not enough ice cream makers.

The Dairy Queen he owns with his wife, Luann, in Pickerington has been short-staffed throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, just two small businesses among the thousands enduring a worker shortage.

But as a quick-service restaurant, Todd said, “The thing that we noticed was when we were posting job opportunities, the majority of the applicants were under the age of 16.”

State and federal laws prevent 14- and 15-year-old workers from working after 7 p.m. when school is in session. But in the summer, teens can work until 9 p.m., keeping them on the job during peak hours for many of their employers.

So, Todd had a simple idea he hopes can make a big difference for restaurants and retailers across Ohio: Let teens work later during the school year.

“This would fill a void in many places,” he said. “Not just the quick service restaurant industry, but other businesses within the entire service industry.”

From soft serve to the statehouse

After bringing his concern to the Pickerington Chamber of Commerce, which took it to state Sen. Tim Schaffer (R-Lancaster), Todd’s light bulb atop the fryer is now Senate Bill 251.

Schaffer and state Sen. Tina Maharath (D-Canal Winchester) are leading the bipartisan bill, which is currently moving through the Senate Workforce and Higher Education Committee.

Ohio labor law restricts workers younger than 16 to three hours a day and 18 hours a week when school is in session. Schaffer and Maharath’s bill would not increase the number of hours that 14- and 15-year-olds can work, just allow them to work until 9 p.m.

“Two hours of one person’s labor can be a real difference,” Schaffer said. And if it’s multiple people, “that is a huge difference for that retailer who probably wants to go home before midnight.”

He said the National Federation of Independent Business supports the bill, as does the Ohio Restaurant Association.

“While a limit is appropriate for younger workers, we believe that 9 p.m. is reasonable and will open up more opportunities for this important personal growth opportunity for more Ohio teenagers,” ORA government relations director Tod Bowen wrote in committee testimony.

“We understand not all families will want to take advantage of this opportunity,” Bowen added, “and support and value the fact that this legislation clearly states that parents’ consent is necessary for those kids who want to take advantage of this opportunity.”

Todd said he frequently sees the benefits of young workers at his Dairy Queens, where teens are anywhere from 50 to 60% of his workforce during the peak season of early spring to early August.

“The people that I hire who are young, they tend to stay there longer,” he said, “because we gave them their first opportunity, and they are eager – once they turn 16 – to work more hours and to be able to have more responsibilities.”

SB 251, then, is a “win-win situation,” both he and Schaffer said. Ohio’s youngest workers would continue to build important skills like attendance and teamwork, while their service and retail employers could more quickly return to normal operations during prime business hours.

“It’s an absolute, desperate need,” Schaffer said.

When could the law change?

If this bill passes, the federal government needs to act before it can take effect. Linked with SB 251 is Senate Concurrent Resolution 14, which calls on Congress to update the Fair Labor Standards Act to match Ohio’s would-be 9 p.m. extension.

“That’s going to be the biggest hurdle I think, is to get Congress to move in the same direction on this,” Schaffer said. He added that he hopes to see both pieces of legislation pass on the same day.

SB 251 is still early in the committee process with only its sponsor and proponent hearings having happened so far. A hearing for opponents is traditionally next, but for the bill to land on Gov. Mike DeWine’s desk, it still needs to pass out of committee, pass the Senate floor, then repeat the process in the House.

Schaffer, though, is optimistic.

“I know it’s been a popular bill,” he said. And now that the legislature is back after its winter holiday break, “I would fully expect it to move fairly quickly.”