Child labor violations in the United States have been on a troubling upward trend, with legislative efforts to address the issue receiving limited support. At the state level, Republicans continue to push bills that aim to roll back existing child labor protections.
Underfunded and Understaffed
Despite the Department of Labor’s commitment to ramping up enforcement against child labor and migrant child labor exploitation, the wage and hour division remains underfunded and understaffed.
State labor departments also experienced significant increases in child labor violations. Notably, Washington saw a record number of employers cited for child labor violations, while New York reported a 68% increase in such violations in 2022.
A recent report centered on child labor in the United States, “In the most recent fiscal year, the US Department of Labor’s wage and hour division reported 835 cases of child labor violations affecting 3,876 minors, with 688 minors employed in violation of hazardous occupations, representing a shocking 283% increase since 2015.” Civil penalties against employers for child labor violation amounted to just under $4.3 million.
A Tragic Loss
In June, 16-year-old William Hampton lost his life in Missouri while working at a recycling park.
He was pinned between a semi-truck and a trailer, and the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is still investigating the incident.
A Common Trend
Later that same month, 16-year-old Michael Schuls met a tragic end at a sawmill in Wisconsin. He was operating hazardous machinery that was illegal for someone of his age to use.
The same employer, Florence Hardwoods, was found in violation of numerous child labor laws and had to pay a fine of $190,696 for the violations.
The Department of Labor also announced fines against Win.IT America for child labor violations, including the employment of an 11-year-old and a 13-year-old at a Kentucky warehouse, where the children performed hazardous job duties like operating a forklift and picking warehouse orders.
High-profile food service corporations have faced fines for child labor violations in 2023, including McDonald’s, Chipotle, Chick-fil-A, Sonic, Dunkin’ Donuts, Dave & Buster’s, Subway, Arby’s, Tropical Smoothie Cafe, Popeye’s, and Zaxby’s. Tyson Foods and Perdue Farms are currently under federal investigation for alleged child labor violations in their supply chains.
Workers Speak out
Workers have taken action to protest the lack of response from companies like Tyson Foods.
A rally outside Tyson Foods headquarters in Springdale, Arkansas was held to highlight concerns about child labor violations and unsafe working conditions.
An anonymous worker from a Tyson Foods plant in Arkansas said, “The child labor really concerns me and other workers because a child doesn’t have the capacity or power to prevent danger due to bad working conditions.”
A Lack of Action
Magaly Licolli, organizer of the rally and executive director of the nonprofit Venceremos, emphasized Tyson Foods’ lack of action in addressing child labor issues in its supply chain.
Kids in the Supply Chain
Licolli said, “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.”
Efforts to improve child labor protections and enforcement have encountered significant partisan divisions.
While some Democrats at the federal level have introduced legislation to enhance child labor protections and increase penalties for employers, the support from Republicans has been minimal.
For instance, Congresswoman Hillary Scholten introduced a bill to increase civil penalties for child labor protections, with seven co-sponsors, including one Republican.
Expanding Protections and Fines
On Tuesday, Democratic Senator Brian Schatz and Republican Senator Todd Young introduced a bill to amend the Fair Labor Standards Act to expand protections to independent contractors and increase fines for violations.
However, no Republicans have co-sponsored other bills introduced by Democrats this year to strengthen child labor protections.
Expanding Working Hours for Children
On the contrary, some Republicans have introduced bills that seek to roll back child labor protections. Congressman Dusty Johnson’s “Teenagers Earning Everyday Skills Act,” supported by three Republican co-sponsors, is one such example.
This legislation, backed by the US Chamber of Commerce, aims to expand working hours for children aged 14 to 16 while school is in session.
Rolling Back Protections
The efforts to roll back child labor protections extend to the state level, with at least 16 states introducing bills to weaken these protections.
States like Arkansas and Iowa have already enacted laws to roll back child labor protections.
Florida, for instance, became the 16th state to introduce a bill that eliminates all guidelines on work-hour restrictions for 16- and 17-year-olds.
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