Labor Laws for Child Actors

Updated April 17, 2017

Show business can provide many opportunities for young talent. Brooke Shields began her career in commercials when she was just a baby. Macaulay Culkin was only 9 years old when he rose to fame in the film "Home Alone." The 2009 Tony Award for Best Actor in a Musical was shared by David Alvarez, Trent Kowalik and Kiril Kulish, all of whom were less than 16 years old, for playing the lead role in "Billy Elliot: The Musical." At the same time, there is also the concern that child actors may be exploited, overworked or swindled during their careers. Specific labour laws have been established in hopes of providing child actors with safe working environments, ample time for education and a guarantee that their earnings will be protected.

Coogan Law

The Coogan Law is a piece of California state legislation named after child actor Jackie Coogan, who had a successful career in the 1920s starring in films with such luminaries as Charlie Chaplin. When Coogan was working, his earnings, according the law at the time, belonged to his parents. By the time he was 21, Coogan's career was over, and he learnt that he had no access to any of the money his extensive work had generated throughout his childhood. He sued his mother in an effort to claim some of his earnings.

According to the Screen Actors Guild (SAG), the Coogan Law was originally developed in 1939 to prevent child actors from being swindled out of their earnings. The law has been updated throughout the decades to tighten loopholes that have led to litigation. The current California law, revised in 2000, states that the money earned by minors working on entertainment projects belongs solely to the children themselves, and not to their guardians or business representatives. A guardian overseeing a child's finances is legally responsible for protecting those earnings until the child reaches the age of majority. Fifteen per cent of the earnings must be held in a blocked trust fund, known as a Coogan account.

Education and Welfare

Laws regarding education requirements vary from one state to the next. In California, a child actor must have access to a tutor for academics, as well as an advocate to ensure that the working environment and circumstances are not detrimental to the child's well being. According to On Location Education, a "studio teacher" must have credentials in multiple subjects for elementary education or single subjects for high school academics, as well as proficient knowledge of California State Labor Laws.

Working Hours

Individual state laws designate how many hours a child actor is allowed to be "on set." In California, babies can only be "under the lights" for 20 minutes. For this reason, films and TV shows that need toddler-age actors often employ twins so they can do twice as much filming in one day. According to Schooling for Child Actors, young children up to age 6 can be on set for 6 hours and children above the age of 7 can be on set for 8 hours. Set time, however, includes school time. An average of 3 hours, although not necessarily consecutive, is set a side for academics. The production is required provide a child actor and her teacher with a comfortable area conducive to studying.


According to, before accepting a professional role, a child must have a valid work permit and a Social Security number. Details regarding work permits vary with each state. California has an Entertainment Work Permit Department that specialises in this area. Most children are issued a six-month work permit. A child must have the permit before he begins working.


As a child actor in the 1950s, Paul Peterson played the role of Jeff Stone on "The Donna Reed Show." Throughout the decades, Peterson became frustrated after hearing so many stories of young actors who had suffered from physical, psychological and financial difficulties after they were exploited or abused by the people handling their careers. In 1997, he formed "A Minor Consideration," a non-profit foundation that aims to provide young performers with the guidance and support they need to enjoy successful careers on the set and happy lives off the set. The foundation's website (see Resources) provides industry news and links to resources for young actors and their families.

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About the Author

J.L. Goldsworthy has been working in the publishing industry since 1996, serving as a commissioned editor and ghostwriter for various publishing entities and private authors, and holding the position of Managing Editor for Aldine de Gruyter Books.