Child labor violations have been soaring in the US, but efforts to render solutions through legislation have received little support, and Republicans at the state level continue pushing bills that would roll back current child labor protections.
In most recent fiscal year, the US Department of Labor wage and hour division reported 835 cases of child labor violations affecting 3,876 minors, and 688 minors employed in violation of hazardous occupation, a 283% increase since 2015. Civil penalties against employers totaled just under $4.3m.
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The Department of Labor has pushed to ramp up enforcement against child labor and the exploitation of migrant child labor, but the wage and hour division remains too underfunded and too understaffed to protect workers adequately.
At the state level, labor departments also saw sharp increases in child labor violations last year. A record number of employers were cited for child labor violations in Washington and in New York, the state labor department reported a 68% increase in child labor violations in 2022.
This year, harrowing child labor violations were reported by officials, including three teens who were killed on the job during the summer.
In June, 16-year-old William Hampton was killed in Lee Summit, Missouri, while working at a recycling park when he was pinned between a semi-truck and a trailer. Osha, the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration, is still investigating the incident.
Later that same month, 16-year-old Michael Schuls was killed at a sawmill in Wisconsin while operating hazardous machinery that was illegal for the worker to operate at that age. The same employer, Florence Hardwoods, was found in violation of numerous other child labor laws and settled a fine of $190,696 for the violations.
In August, 16-year-old Duvan Thomas Perez was killed while working at a poultry plant in Mississippi, a job occupation illegal for under 18-year-olds to work due to hazardous conditions.
Last week, the Department of Labor announced over $30,000 in fines against Win.IT America over child labor violations that included employing an 11-year-old and 13-year-old illegally at a Kentucky warehouse, where the children performed hazardous job duties that included operating a forklift and picking warehouse orders.
Several high-profile food service corporations have also faced fines over child labor violations in 2023, including McDonald’s, Chipotle, Chick-fil-A, Sonic, Dunkin’, Dave & Buster’s, Subway, Arby’s, Tropical Smoothie Cafe, Popeye’s and Zaxby’s, while corporations such as Tyson Foods and Perdue Farms are currently under federal investigation for alleged child labor violations in their supply chains.
On Monday, workers held a rally outside of Tyson Foods headquarters in Springdale, Arkansas to protest against the lack of action from the company in response to child labor violations in its supply chain and broad issues of unsafe working conditions.
“The child labor really concerns me and other workers, because a child doesn’t have the capacity or power to prevent danger because of the bad working conditions,” said a worker at a Tyson Foods plant in Arkansas who requested to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation.
“The dangers we go through, such as the chemicals, the fast line speeds … even this past week they rearranged some lines at the plant I work at where they want to cut positions, leaving less workers to do the work.”
Magaly Licolli, organizer of the rally and executive director of the non-profit Venceremos, said Tyson Foods has not provided any solutions to child labor problems within its supply chain. She said nor has it spoken up as the state of Arkansas passed legislation to roll back numerous child labor protections in March.
“Tyson keeps avoiding the subject by saying they are not hiring the kids, but the fact is kids are working within their supply chain, and it’s unclear how Tyson is tackling this issue,” said Licolli.
“I speak with workers every day. Just recently a group of catchers at Tyson chicken farms came to us: two of them were minors from Guatemala, and they came to Venceremos because they were not paid, and forced to work 16 hours in one shift, and the contractor did not want to pay them.”
She said that among workers there have been increasing reports of minors working as catchers in the chicken farm industry. Catchers are employees who catch, handle and load chickens on farms for transport. Tyson Foods did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
“Tyson Foods claim to be a family-owned company with strong family values. But where are those values when it comes to the workers that process their chicken or the products that they sell?” Licolli added.
Even as the US has reported recent surges in child labor violations, efforts to improve protections and enforcement have largely been disconnected along party lines.
Some Democrats at the federal level have introduced legislation to improve child labor protections and increase monetary penalties on employers, but only two Republicans have co-sponsored bills introduced in the past year.
A bill to increase civil penalties for child labor protections was introduced by Congresswoman Hillary Scholten in March, with seven co-sponsors, including one Republican.
On Tuesday, Senators Brian Schatz, a Democrat, and Todd Young, a Republican, introduced a bill to amend the Fair Labor Standards Act to expand protections to independent contractors and increase fines for violations.
No Republicans have signed on to co-sponsor other bills introduced by Democrats this year, including the Combating Child Labor Act, Child Labor Prevention Act, Child Labor Exploitation Accountability Act and the Children Don’t Belong on Tobacco Farms Act, but have supported two bills aimed at rolling back current child labor protections.
The Republican congressman Dusty Johnson introduced a bill in August, the Teenagers Earning Everyday Skills Act, with three Republican co-sponsors. The legislation, backed by the US Chamber of Commerce, would expand working hours for children aged 14 to 16 while school is in session.
“If a high school student can play in a football game until 9pm, or play video games late into the evening, they should also be allowed to hold a job if they wish to,” said Johnson in a statement last year.
The Republican senator James Risch and and Democratic congressman Jared Golden introduced legislation to roll back child labor protections to permit 16- and 17-year-olds to work in the logging industry, with support from four Republican senators, one independent senator (Angus King), and two Republican and two Democratic congressional representatives.
At the state level, Republicans have led efforts to roll back child labor protections, with bills introduced in at least 16 states. States including Arkansas and Iowa have enacted laws to roll back child labor protections.
In September, Florida became the 16th state to introduce such a bill after Republican Linda Chaney supported eliminating all guidelines on work hour restrictions for 16- and 17-year-olds.
Jennifer Sherer, the director of the Economic Analysis and Research Network (Earn) State Worker Power Initiative, said the recent Florida bill was part of a broader trend to roll back child labor protections with regard to the number of hours young people can be scheduled to work by an employer, especially during the school year.
“Those guidelines are connected to trying to ensure that every kid has the same opportunity for education,” said Sherer. “All the restrictions are gone under the proposed bill and the other thing that has people scratching their heads a little bit is it changes the language for 14- and 15-year-olds, it changes the word ‘shall’ to ‘may’.
“No one we talked to is clear what this would mean, but it certainly raised a red flag. It’s not clear if legislators who authored the bill are also intending to make some of those hours’ guidelines optional for employers for teens as young as 14.”
Sherer added: “The push to roll back the standards in that sort of context very much looks like industry groups hoping to legalize violations that they know they’re already committing.”