Child labor

Last Fall, I wrote about an upsetting Labor Department injunction filed in federal court against Packers Sanitation Services (PSSI) Inc. for illegally employing 31 children between the ages of 13 and 17 in at least three meatpacking plants where the PSSI is contracted to clean and sanitize. The school children worked on overnight shifts and several suffered chemical burns from the corrosive cleaners they were required to use. Most were Latino and did not speak English. Children were working six to seven hours a night.

And this wasn’t an isolated case:

In August, the Labor Department sued a Hyundai supplier in Alabama after Reuters reported the facility had used workers as young as 12.

A Nebraska labor contractor for meat producer JBS settled with the Labor Department in December to resolve civil charges after regulators alleged the company used “oppressive child labor.” Law enforcement launched an investigation into the plant after an underage worker allegedly sustained chemical burns from cleaning agents used at the facility.

Plus investigations at fast-food chains including McDonald’sDunkin Donuts and Chipotle.

And more:

Child labor law violations have increased in the US, with a 37% increase in fiscal year 2022, including 688 children working in hazardous conditions, with the number likely much higher as the recorded violations stem from what was found during labor inspections.

The Department of Labor issued a press release in July 2022 noting child labor violations and investigations have increased since 2015.

In FY 2022, there were 835 cases involving child labor violations and 3,876 minors employed in violation of child labor laws, an uptick from the 747 cases and 2,819 minors working in violation in FY 2021, according to DOL data.

Since the start of the Biden administration, the DOL has issued at least 38 press releases involving child labor enforcement cases.

In fact, Jessica Looman, principal deputy administrator of the Wage and Hour Division, told Bloomberg Law that they have seen about a 50% increase in child labor violations since 2018.

And Marcy Goldstein-Gelb, co-executive director of the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health, points out, not only are children working more, they’re getting injured more as well

Young workers have much higher rates of non-fatal injuries on the job and the highest rates of injuries that require emergency department attention, Goldstein-Gelb noted. She argued that due to the vulnerability and inexperience of young workers, data on these workers is likely an undercount due to fears or barriers in being able to speak up and report dangerous situations or child labor law violations.

Solution: More Child Labor

One might have thought that these reports and investigations would have shocked the nation, leading to new laws and regulations that would better protect children from hazardous work.

But think again.

Severe labor shortages make it hard on employers these days. And the business community has found their solution. Instead of trying to increase immigration or fund apprenticeship programs for older children and young adults, several states, including Iowa, Minnesota, Ohio and Arkansas are considering legislation to would decrease the age and increase the hours at which children could work dangerous jobs.

Legislators in Iowa and Minnesota introduced bills in January to loosen child labor law regulations around age and workplace safety protections in some of the country’s most dangerous workplaces. Minnesota’s bill would permit 16- and 17-year-olds to work construction jobs. The Iowa measure would allow 14- and 15-year-olds to work certain jobs in meatpacking plants.

The Iowa bill, introduced by state Sen. Jason Schultz (R), would permit children as young as 14 to work in industrial freezers and meat coolers, provided they are separate from where meat is prepared, and work in industrial laundry.

At 15, they would be able to work as lifeguards and swimming instructors, perform light assembly-line work after obtaining a waiver from state officials, and load and unload up to 50 pounds of products from vehicles and store shelves with a waiver “depending on the strength and ability of the fifteen-year-old.”

And it’s not just Iowa and Minnesota:

In Ohio, legislators reintroduced a bipartisan bill this year to extend working hours for 14- and 15-year-olds with permission from a parent or legal guardian, and called on Congress to adopt the same rollbacks at the federal level.

Republicans in Wisconsin passed a bill that was vetoed by Governor Tony Evers in this month that would have expanded work hours for 14- and 15-year-olds. The New Jersey governor, Phil Murphy, signed a similar law in 2022 that expanded work hours for 14- and 15-year-olds to work longer hours during summer months and on holidays and expanded allowable work hours for 16- and 17-year-olds.

Arkansas is also joining the pack with legislation that would remove the requirement for children under 16 to get permission from the Arkansas Department of Labor to get a job..

But the Iowa legislation seems to stand out, allowing 14-year olds to work in industrial freezers and meat coolers, load and unload “light” tools from vehicles and work in an industrial laundry. And good news for 15 year-olds. They would be able to work in mines. 14 and 15 year-olds would also be able to work longer hours.

In addition,

The Iowa proposal would also expand hours teenagers can work during the school year, and would shield businesses from civil liability if a youth worker is sickened, injured or killed on the job.

The bill would permit the director of Iowa workforce development or the Iowa department of education to grant exceptions from any provision that restricts the types of jobs 14- and 15-year-olds can do if the work is classified as part of a work-based learning program and also strips workers’ compensation rights for these workers.

I had to read that last paragraph twice. Not only would the Iowa bill allow younger children to work more dangerous jobs, but it also strips workers compensation rights for those workers if they get injured or killed on the job.

Not only would the Iowa bill allow younger children to work more dangerous jobs, but it also strips workers compensation rights for those workers.

So if a child gets injured or killed on the job, even if due the the employer’s negligence — employers are held blameless and the injured kids don’t even get workers comp.

It is astounding that they would have the gall to knowingly acknowledge that more young people will be harmed, but focus on exempting businesses,” said Marcy Goldstein-Gelb, co-executive director of the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health.

Goldstein-Gelb explained that throughout her career she has worked with families and co-workers of young workers who have died on the job, oftentimes in violation of child labor laws that industry groups have fought to repeal, such as in a case where a 16-year-old in Massachusetts was killed in 2000 while operating a golf cart on the job.

The Cedar Rapids Gazette is not pleased about the impact of this legislation on children’s’ welfare:

Child labor laws were put into place to protect children’s normal well-being — including their physical, intellectual, and emotional psychosocial development. It’s a public health issue. Encouraging child labor is detrimental to the economy, as it depresses economic growth due to the persistence of poverty in most cases, according to economist Eric Edmunds and professor of economics Caroline Theoharides in their Handbook of Labor, Human Resources and Population Economics (2020). “Working children are both a cause and a consequence of a lack of economic development,” the book reports. “Widespread child employment dampers future economic growth through its negative impact on child development and depresses current growth by reducing unskilled wages and discouraging the adoption of skill-intensive technologies. Child employment also appears to result from a lack of economic growth.”

The Daily Show’s Sarah Silverman captures the absurdity of these developments.

Business Community Support

Why is this happening now? Yesterday’s Washington Post explained that

It’s part of a persistent trend in labor economics, experts say. When employers struggle to find talent, many prefer to hire younger, cheaper workers rather than increase pay and benefits to attract adults.

“Because of the high demand for workers, where there are holes in the system, unfortunately child laborers can get caught up in staffing some of those holes,” said David Weil, a professor of social policy and management at Brandeis University, and a former wage and hour administrator in the Labor Department.

Indeed. Faced with labor shortages and demands for higher wages — and even (horrors!) organizing unions by increasingly empowered (adult) workers, the business community is, of course, fully supportive of increasing the use of the most vulnerable workers in the workforce. And who is more vulnerable than children — especially (in the case of Packers Sanitation Services) children of immigrants who only speak Spanish.

Faced with labor shortages and demands for higher wages — and even (horrors!) unions from increasingly empowered (adult) workers, the business community is fully supportive of increasing the use of the most vulnerable workers in the workforce.

The National Federation of Independent Businesses (NFIB), a long opponent of worker protections, testifying in favor of the Ohio legislation, complained of severe labor shortages plaguing its members.  And the solution is obvious:

Senate Bill 251 aims to address workforce challenges by expanding opportunities for minors aged 14 or 15, to work up to two hours later than currently allowed. An important check requires parental or guardian approval, ensuring adult oversight for what is best for their children. While this legislation is not a panacea for all the hiring obstacles facing our members, it would be advantageous in certain industry sectors.

Worker Advocates Push Back

Advocates have been pushing in the opposite direction with the Wage and Hour Division (WHD) of the Department of Labor. Wage and Hour, which is in charge of enforcing child labor limits under the Fair Labor Standards Act. WHD issues and enforces Hazardous Occupation Orders which determine how long minors can work, and the tasks minors can safely do at work.

“We think these laws are really ill advised and just asking kids to have negative educational impacts,” said Reid Maki, director of child labor issues and coordinator at the Child Labor Coalition, who argued it took significant efforts to enact child labor laws over 100 years ago, when there were thousands of children working long hours in unsafe jobs such as factories and mines.

Maki added: “Now there are states that want to go back toward that direction to deal with labor shortages by using teens, even to the extent of placing them in dangerous work environments – [it] doesn’t make sense. It’s disregarding their welfare.”

He argued that child labor laws in the US need to be strengthened and updated, including closing existing loopholes that permit young workers, some as young as 12 years old, to work unlimited hours in many jobs in the agriculture industry with parental permission when school is not in session.

Iowa unions are also opposed. The president of the Iowa Federation of Labor (AFL-CIO), Charlie Wishman, has condemned the legislation  as “reprehensible.”

“This is just crazy,” Wishman told the Des Moines Register. “A kid can still lose an arm in a work-based learning program.”

Wishman told Newsweek: “For us, this bill overall undermines the basic recognition that child labor should be limited and safe. Let kids be kids—there are plenty of job opportunities right now for kids to gain experience and learn responsibility without putting them in danger or compromising their academic success.”

He added: “Here are answers to this state’s workforce problems, and it’s not hiring children to do adult jobs. It’s better pay, benefits, and working conditions for adults that can make Iowa an attractive place to live and work.”

Democrats in Congress are also working to oppose expanding child labor. Citing “disturbing ongoing reports of child labor at auto parts suppliers for Hyundai Motor Group,” several Democratic Congresspersons, led by Dale Kildee (D-MI) sent a letter to Secretary of Labor Marty Walsh earlier this week urging “DOL to take immediate action to rid Hyundai’s supply chain of child labor and hold those responsible to the fullest extent of the law.

They noted that:

New reports allege additional automotive parts suppliers for Hyundai, mainly in Alabama, are also suspected of child labor violations. Many of these children are immigrants recruited from Central America, working under fake names in dangerous conditions in manufacturing plants, some driving forklifts and operating welding equipment, and receiving serious workplace injuries.

According to reports, children are actively recruited from Central America and employed through third-party staffing agencies in an attempt to cover up these disturbing activities. According to reports, when adult workers in the plants tried to raise concerns about children working there, they were ignored. This is shocking, disturbing and has no place in the U.S.

An Ongoing Problem — Especially on Farms

I described many of the problems a causes of the growth of child labor here.

We’ve always known that the strength of the agriculture industry (and support from the Department of Agriculture) has resulted in regulations that freely and unapologetically allow children to get injured and die on farms, but now the problem seems to be spreading.

Under current rules, minors who are at least 16 years old may perform any farm job without limits, even during school hours. Minors who are at least 14 years old may work outside school hours, but not perform work deemed hazardous by the labor secretary. Kids working on farms owned or operated by their parents don’t have to follow those rules at all.

The farm problem is receiving growing scrutiny, but to no avail.

In July, more than three dozen Democrats signed on to a letter urging the Biden administration to put more restrictions on the types of jobs children can work, citing a 2018 report from the Government Accountability Office that found that more than half of work-related fatalities among kids occurred in agriculture. And in 2002 the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health said the DOL needed to modernize and expand its hazardous occupation limits to better protect children at work—a recommendation that still stands.

The Obama administration considered updating the hazardous occupation orders in 2011, proposing to, among other things, ban children from working in tobacco fields — something advocates and Democrats want from the Biden administration now. But the Obama DOL eventually scrapped the rulemakingciting concerns about the disruption it could cause to family farms. (emphasis added)

“Citing concerns” is a euphemism for succumbing to overwhelming pressure from the agriculture industry, the Department of Agriculture and eventually the Obama White House.

To make matters worse, language OSHA’s appropriations bill forbids the agency’s inspectors from stepping foot only any farm with ten or fewer employees — even if workers (of any age) are killed or file complaints.

Work Within Limits

No one is arguing that young people shouldn’t work. Work builds character, prepares kids for adulthood, and earns money. The problem isn’t work, it working dangerous jobs or for lengths of time that will interfere with their schooling.

Some jobs that children perform — babysitting, waiting restaurant tables, scooping ice cream — can be good for them, said University at Albany professor Shawn Bushway. Those kinds of jobs can teach responsibility, professionalism and financial literacy, said Bushway, who studies the effect of work on young people.

But other, more trade-oriented jobs, such as agricultural work, landscaping and construction, could be more pernicious, said Debbie Berkowitz, a fellow at Georgetown University’s Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor. They’re less likely to employ middle- or upper-class children who take jobs for workplace experience or pocket change.

Instead, Berkowitz and other child labor critics say, children in lower income families are more likely to be hired for those roles. “A lot of the child labor jobs are menial jobs and those skills aren’t transferrable,” Berkowitz said.

According to Berkowitz.  “They don’t have to go to college, but they can learn a skill and get into an apprentice program and pull everybody up,” she said. “And they can still work on the weekends and after school for certain hours, but they should be focused on school.”

One additional modest proposal to address the labor shortage: make immigration much easier and develop a path to citizenship for undocumented workers currently in the country.

In addition to better apprenticeship programs and safer work, I previously outlined other measures to fight child labor, including stronger unions, better funded worker protection agencies, tougher laws and regulations to hold companies accountable and educating and empowering vulnerable workers.

And if a severe labor shortage is the real problem, allow me to make one additional modest proposal: make immigration much easier and develop a path to citizenship for undocumented workers currently in the country. There are thousands — probably millions — of undocumented workers in this country and outside of this country who want to work. Making it easier for them to get jobs in this country — well-paying jobs with benefits and basic protections — will solve the labor shortage — and let kids be kids.

That shouldn’t be too controversial, should it?

2 thoughts on “Labor Shortages? How About More Child Labor?”
  1. A horrifying as this child exploitation and endangerment is, and I can’t even fathom 15 year olds working in mines in the future, it does neatly tie in with the GOP plans to abolish both OSHA (HR 69) and the US Dept of Education (recent speeches by the sedition caucus).

  2. Thank you Jordan!
    This is a wonderful piece and so needed. Hard to believe there is a push to move backwards to the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution (and before) to exploit kids and put them in harms way. Another solution to the labor shortage, in addition to making it easier for immigrants to work here, is to also improve working conditions and pay for all those many workers who left the workforce and have little incentive to return due to poor pay, benefits and working conditions.

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