Sometimes it takes good journalism or a bad disaster — or both — to encourage interest or activity or change in this country.
Over the last several weeks, we’ve seen powerful stories and analysis by some of the country’s premier labor and investigative reporters about child labor.
But more important, as a result of those articles, we’ve also seen the White House, Executive Branch agencies and Congress leap in to action — or at least express their intention to leap into action — to address some aspects of the problem. Meanwhile, the reports note, some state legislators and Governors want to address the problem by — making the problem worse.
When last we visited the topic of child labor several weeks ago, the Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division had fined Packers Sanitation Services for employing over 100 children in some of the most dangerous workplaces in the country. At that point, we could still hope that child labor was an isolated phenomenon in this country allowed by a few low-road employers. That followed a Reuters investigation showing that “at least four major suppliers of Hyundai Motor Co and sister Kia Corp have employed child labor at Alabama factories in recent years.”
But now, just a few weeks later, some amazing stories and reports by enterprising journalists and think-tanks have revealed that, far from being a series of isolated incidents, child labor in this country — especially the employment of vulnerable immigrant children — is expansive and growing. Much of the fault lies with the failed implementation of government policy.
And instead of being alarmed and cracking down on the exploitation of these children, at least ten states are going the exact opposite direction: proposing and passing legislation to ease restrictions on child labor, with the strong support of some of the country’s leading business associations.
A full list of the articles I’ve highlighted appears at the end.
Alone and Exploited
Topping the list of excellent journalism on this subject is New York Times investigative journalist Hannah Dreier’s lengthy exposé of child labor entitled “Alone and Exploited, Migrant Children Work Brutal Jobs Across the U.S.” It’s a shocking story of widespread exploitation of immigrant children, here without parents, working for some of the biggest companies in the country. And the abject failure of government oversight.
Dreier describes the exploitation:
In town after town, children scrub dishes late at night. They run milking machines in Vermont and deliver meals in New York City. They harvest coffee and build lava rock walls around vacation homes in Hawaii. Girls as young as 13 wash hotel sheets in Virginia.
These children don’t work in hidden sweatshops for obscure low-road off-the-radar employers. They’re making products for America’s biggest companies.
In Los Angeles, children stitch “Made in America” tags into J. Crew shirts. They bake dinner rolls sold at Walmart and Target, process milk used in Ben & Jerry’s ice cream and help debone chicken sold at Whole Foods. As recently as the fall, middle-schoolers made Fruit of the Loom socks in Alabama. In Michigan, children make auto parts used by Ford and General Motors.
Unaccompanied minors have had their legs torn off in factories and their spines shattered on construction sites, but most of these injuries go uncounted.
And they’re not safe jobs.
These jobs — which are grueling and poorly paid, and thus chronically short-staffed — are exactly where many migrant children are ending up. Adolescents are twice as likely as adults to be seriously injured at work, yet recently arrived preteens and teenagers are running industrial dough mixers, driving massive earthmovers and burning their hands on hot tar as they lay down roofing shingles, The Times found.
Unaccompanied minors have had their legs torn off in factories and their spines shattered on construction sites, but most of these injuries go uncounted. The Labor Department tracks the deaths of foreign-born child workers but no longer makes them public. Reviewing state and federal safety records and public reports, The Times found a dozen cases of young migrant workers killed since 2017, the last year the Labor Department reported any.
The deaths include a 14-year-old food delivery worker who was hit by a car while on his bike at a Brooklyn intersection; a 16-year-old who was crushed under a 35-ton tractor-scraper outside Atlanta; and a 15-year-old who fell 50 feet from a roof in Alabama where he was laying down shingles.
In dairy production, the injury rate is twice the national average across all industries. Paco Calvo arrived in Middlebury, Vt., when he was 14 and has been working 12-hour days on dairy farms in the four years since. He said he crushed his hand in an industrial milking machine in the first months of doing this work.
“Pretty much everyone gets hurt when they first start,” he said.
One company that employs children, Hearthside Food Solutions, makes cereal for major manufacturers like Frito-Lay, General Mills and Quaker Oats
The company, which has 39 factories in the United States, has been cited by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration for 34 violations since 2019, including for unsafe conveyor belts at the plant where Carolina found her job. At least 11 workers suffered amputations in that time. In 2015, a machine caught the hairnet of an Ohio worker and ripped off part of her scalp.
The history of accidents “shows a corporate culture that lacks urgency to keep workers safe,” an OSHA official wrote after the most recent violation for an amputation.
Underage workers in Grand Rapids said that spicy dust from immense batches of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos made their lungs sting, and that moving heavy pallets of cereal all night made their backs ache. They worried about their hands getting caught in conveyor belts, which federal law classifies as so hazardous that no child Carolina’s age is permitted to work with them.
Child labor has always been a problem on the nations “family farms.” It is a long-standing American tradition that farmers should be allowed to kill their own children and others. For example, kids under 18 are prohibited from doing hazardous work, while in agriculture, the age limit is 16. Outside of agriculture, children are not allowed to work during school hours when school is in session they can work a maximum of 3 hours/day on a school day, and 8 hours/day on a nonschool day. There are not standards for agricultural workers.
So are these companies accepting blame and correcting the problem? Not exactly.
Dreier explains that most of the big familiar brand name companies don’t employee these workers directly.
“Not our fault,” they say. They had no idea! They’re shocked. SHOCKED!
Major brand cereal manufacturers like General Mills and Frito Lay, for example, don’t package their own food; they contract out to companies that Hearthside Food Solutions.
So Hearthside is the culprit?
Again. Not so simple.
Hearthside was also SHOCKED. They also had no idea this was happening. How could they? The don’t hire the kids off the street. Instead, the hire employees from temporary agencies.
So the temp agencies are to blame. Right?
The temp agency that Hearthside uses said it had “concerns,” but they claimed that Hearthside didn’t care about the workers’ ages.
Meanwhile, while Hearthside and the temp agencies fight it out, General Mills and Frito Lay escape controversy — and legal implications.
As the NYT explains, “Over the past half-century, the economy has quietly reorganized itself to separate large, respectable corporations from low-wage worker bees.”
Tim Noah, writing in the New Republic points out that there is a lot of concern focused lately on “gig workers” like Uber drivers and food delivery workers. But former Obama Wage and Hour Director David Weil, who wrote a book about this phenomenon called The Fissured Workplace, explains what’s actually going on:
The more common, and more invisible, problem is that through subcontracting and franchising, large corporations have made the enforcement of labor protections for frontline, low-wage workers other people’s problem.
Subcontractors win contracts with low bids and are left to figure out how to cover costs; the Fortune 500 company that hires them really doesn’t want to hear about it. Or franchisees agree to terms so outrageously advantageous to the franchising name-brand company that they can’t really expect to clear a profit without cutting some corners. Somebody’s got to be the fall guy, and it’s not such a bad fate. The penalties for violating these laws are small—for employing child labor, you pay all of $15,138 per child—and the reputational damage is minimal for a subcontractor or franchisee of whom nobody’s ever heard.
Former OSHA official Debbie Berkowitz explains that subcontracting is so attractive because “these subcontractors do the same work but for a lot less money, and the way they do that is by paying less, hiring vulnerable workers that aren’t going to complain about safety conditions, and just clearly flouting labor laws.”
“These subcontractors do the same work but for a lot less money, and the way they do that is by paying less, hiring vulnerable workers that aren’t going to complain about safety conditions, and just clearly flouting labor laws.” Former OSHA Official Debbie Berkowitz
Unfortunately, the Occupational Safety and Health Act makes it difficult for OSHA to cite employers higher up the food chain. OSHA can only cite employees of employers. So while they can cite Hearthside, they can’t touch General Mills or Frito Lay.
Federal Government: Making the Problem Worse
Why is all this happening? And why isn’t the federal government doing anything about it?
According to Dreier, not only are the feds not doing anything about it, but federal policy is actually contributing to the problem.
The root cause, of course, lies in the extreme poverty of Central American countries like Guatema0la — poverty that got much worse due to COVID. More and more parents started sending their unaccompanied children north — not only in hope of a better life for their children — free from the threat of chronic hunger — but also, if possible, the kids may be able to send a little money back home. Dreier reports that “In the last two years alone, more than 250,000 children have entered the United States by themselves. The parents also know that while adults may be turned around at the border, unaccompanied children seeking asylum will be sent to family member or other sponsors across the United States while their asylum claims are heard.”
Sounds good in theory. In practice however, the system has broken down. In an attempt to get the kids out cages and off of concrete floors in the border camps, they’re being rushed out to family members or sponsors without adequate oversight to ensure their safety.
HHS is supposed to check in on the children after they’re placed. But the Times found that “over the last two years, the agency could not reach more than 85,000 children. Overall, the agency lost immediate contact with a third of migrant children.”
Dreier quotes several current and former HHS employees who blame HHS Secretary Javier Becerra for rushing the children out of the camps and threatening to fire supervisors who didn’t transfer children fast enough. Becerra didn’t want to be criticized for making kids sleep on concrete floors.
Concerns piled up in summer 2021 at the Office of Refugee Resettlement, the H.H.S. division responsible for unaccompanied migrant children. In a memo that July, 11 managers said they were worried that labor trafficking was increasing and complained to their bosses that the office had become “one that rewards individuals for making quick releases, and not one that rewards individuals for preventing unsafe releases.”
Staff members said in interviews that Mr. Becerra continued to push for faster results, often asking why they could not discharge children with machine-like efficiency.
“If Henry Ford had seen this in his plants, he would have never become famous and rich. This is not the way you do an assembly line,” Mr. Becerra said at a staff meeting last summer, according to a recording obtained by The Times.
HHS is supposed to check in on the children after they’re placed. But the Times found that “over the last two years, the agency could not reach more than 85,000 children. Overall, the agency lost immediate contact with a third of migrant children.”
Although the children were given a hot-line number to call, the calls were simply forwarded to local law enforcement which did nothing. And no one ever got back to the children who called the hot-line. Dreier reports, “There is no formal follow-up from any federal or local agencies to ensure that sponsors are not putting children to work illegally.”
Managing to Failure
Now, for students of organization — especially (but not exclusively) the federal government — what we’re seeing here underlying Dreier’s findings is a familiar phenomenon called “managing to failure.”
Top level managers will make demands on employees — often with good intentions — but goals are impossible to meet — because of lack of resources, or just because the request is unworkable. But employees (especially government workers), being the good soldiers they are — or not wanting to get fired — nevertheless find some way of following those unreasonable orders and meeting the impossible goals.
During the Obama administration, for example, we saw this phenomenon in two controversies.
After the 2010 elections and the eruption of the Tea Party, the small IRS staff was tasked with approving or disapproving overwhelming number of new applications for non-profit status from political organizations that were springing up all over the country. In order to meet their deadlines on a timely basis, they started doing word searches for terms like “tea party.” Well, Republicans didn’t take kindly to that shortcut, accusing the IRS of political bias.
When HHS Secretary Javier Becerra ordered HHS employees to get the children out of the “cages” on the border as quickly as possible — or you’re fired — dutiful employees, with no resources to do it safely, just figured out a way: Ship the kids off to wherever and hope for the best.
Similarly, in 2014, the Veterans Health Administration was completely overwhelmed with Gulf War, Afghanistan and Iraq vets desperately needing timely services. In order to address a huge waiting list for services, VHA offices were ordered to set up appointments for everyone within 14 days. And having nowhere near the resources to meet those goals, they falsified records to make it look like they were meeting deadlines. And some veterans died waiting for their appointments.
This phenomenon is not limited to government. During this same period, Wells Fargo Bank set strict (but unrealistic) goals for its employees to get customers to open more bank accounts. Being as their customers had no interest in multiple bank accounts (and the associated fees and negative impacts on their credit rating), Wells Fargo employees found a way to get it done anyway: by creating millions of fraudulent savings and checking accounts for unsuspecting customers.
So, when Becerra ordered HHS employees to get the children out of the “cages” on the border as quickly as possible — or you’re fired — dutiful employees, with no resources to do it safely, just figured out a way: Ship the kids off to wherever and hope for the best.
Rescuing kids from child labor doesn’t end their problems. In fact, according to a story by Maria Sacchetti and Lauren Kaori Gurley in the Washington Post, things can get worse. We wrote last month about a Labor Department crackdown on Packers Sanitation Services, a contractor that hired children to to clean meat processing facilities for major meatpacking companies. One 13 year-old was discovered working the graveyard shift cleaning a meatpacking plant in Nebraska “amid the brisket saws and the bone cutters.”
Packers agreed to a $1.5 million fine, but no criminal charges despite evidence that it failed to take basic steps to verify the age of its young employees.
Like Hearthside, mentioned above, Packers was also SHOCKED to have children working in the plants and doing everything they can to prevent the problem:
Packers spokesperson, said company policy requires workers to report suspicions of identity fraud so the company can investigate and terminate minor workers. She said the company was tricked into hiring the children, calling identity fraud the “only way” to circumvent Packers’ rigorous process of checking all new hires through the government’s E-Verify system.
It’s hard for some of Packers’ excuses to pass the laugh test. The Washington Post points out that “One former Packers worker who witnessed the raid told The Post that his young colleagues sometimes joked about their fake identities. He recalled one particularly childlike worker who claimed to be 37. ”
So, happy ending for the 13-year old? Not exactly:
First, she lost the job that burned and blistered her skin but paid her $19 an hour. Then a county judge sent her stepfather to jail for driving her to work each night, a violation of state child labor laws. Her mother also faces jail time for securing the fake papers that got the child the job in the first place. And her parents are terrified of being sent back to Guatemala, the country they left several years ago in search of a better life.
“I have no words,” the mother said last month, sobbing in the doorway of their pale-peach house hours after police had led her husband away in handcuffs. The girl, now 14, hugged her mother and struggled to describe how she felt.
“Bad,” she said, finally.
Others just disappeared:
Since the October raid, some of the children are nowhere to be found — dismissed from their jobs and no longer in school, according to two school employees. Migrant advocates said Labor Department officials raided the Grand Island plant with no plan for making sure all the children were safe and then declined to provide the children’s names to organizations that could have helped them.
“It’s maddening,” said Audrey Lutz, a former director of the nonprofit Multicultural Coalition, which provides services to immigrants. “We have no idea where they are.”
Wage and Hour
On March 27, immediately following Dreier’s New York Times article, the Department of Labor announced that they are forming an inter-agency taskforce on “Child Labor Exploitation” and launching a national strategic enforcement initiative from the Wage and Hour Division, which enforces child labor rules. The administration is also asking Congress to increase the funding of WHD, and increase maximum fines that can levied against a company that violates child labor rules. The current maximum penalty is only $15,138 per child.
Fortunately, unlike OSHA, Wage and Hour has tools to impact companies all along the food chain. The administration is also looking into using the “hot goods” provision under the Fair Labor Standards Act, which was used by former Wage and Hour director David Weil during the Obama administration to crack down on wage theft in the fields. As journalist Gabriel Thompson described it then:
There is one particularly powerful tool at the disposal of the U.S. Department of Labor: Tucked within the Fair Labor Standards Act, a landmark bill passed during the Great Depression, is something called the “hot goods provision.” This little-known statute empowers the agency to block products made in violation of wage and child labor laws from being shipped across state lines, compelling violators to pay fines and change their practices.
The hot goods provision grants the DOL—and by extension, the farmworkers they protect—enormous leverage. When Labor inspectors determine that a company is violating the FLSA, the agency’s lawyers can go to a federal judge, present their evidence, and ask for a temporary injunction to prevent the company from shipping their products. If the judge grants the injunction, paying back wages suddenly becomes an urgent concern. “Goods produced under conditions which do not meet rudimentary standards of decency,” President Franklin Roosevelt argued in 1937, “should be regarded as contraband and ought not to be allowed to pollute the channels of interstate trade.”
Although the courts weakened the agency’s ability to use hot goods when addressing perishable commodities like strawberries, it remains a a valuable tool to address the subcontracting problem by punishing companies throughout the entire supply chain of a product.
Memorandum of Understanding
In order to enforce existing child labor laws, Wage and Hour needs to be able to locate where children are being unlawfully employed — which has been a problem. Just this morning, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and Wage & Hour announced that the agencies had signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) to address this exact problem. The agreement is intended to in order to “maximize the enforcement of the child labor protections of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), to enhance the ability to protect children from exploitation, and to connect individuals to needed benefits and services.”
It calls for more exchange of information and providing training to each agency’s staff in identifying issues that may arise under the other’s authority.
An MOU signed this morning should give Wage & Hour much more of the information it needs to find child labor violators and enforce the law.
Most important is that HHS will provide Wage and Hour — which has enforcement authority — with information about which businesses have been flagged in reports of child labor exploitation and/or trafficking, additional contact information for individuals who are identified by DOL as victims or potential victims of unlawful child labor, and information about employers and employment agencies related to reports of child labor exploitation, child labor trafficking, and workplace complaints.
If the MOU works as intended, Wage & Hour should have much more of the information it needs to enforce the law.
On the other hand, even a good MOU doesn’t address the fact that Wage and Hour simply doesn’t have the staff or the clout to enforce the law adequately. As a New York Times editorial pointed out today:
The administration lacks all the tools to do the job right. Because its budget has been held flat by Congress, the Wage and Hour Division lost 12 percent of its staff between 2010 and 2019, and [the Department of Labor’s Solicitor’s office lost more than 100 lawyers, so the Labor Department doesn’t have enough investigators to effectively pursue illegal child labor practices. In addition, under current law, the maximum fine for a labor violation by a company is $15,138 per child — often little more than the cost of doing business for big companies.
Congress is also springing into action.
Senate Democrats sent a letter to HHS and DOL, asking for information, saying they were “deeply disturbed” that “large numbers of unaccompanied noncitizen children are being placed with exploitative sponsors and working long hours in dangerous conditions.” Democrats are also proposing new legislation that would strengthen protections for children and increase maximum civil fines and criminal penalties for violations of child labor laws.
Senator Brian Schatz (D-HI) introduced the Child Labor Protection Act that would increase penalties for violating child labor laws to a maximum fine of $132,270 for routine violations and a maximum fine of $601,150 for each violation connected with the death or serious injury of a minor. Schatz also wants to put violators in jail, increasing penalties along with a maximum of a year in jail for repeat or willful violation of child labor laws. Addressing the loophole for subcontractors, Schatz’s bill would also apply those laws to independent contractors and staffing agencies who are currently exempt.
Even Republicans have sprung into action with House Speaker Kevin McCarthy accusing Becerra of cutting corners on vetting procedures “to prioritize the expedited release of minors, and as a result more migrant children are being handed off to traffickers and exploited.” And Republicans on Capitol Hill allegedly plan to launch investigations and introduce legislation that would enable HHS to to track and provide better care for children after they are released to sponsors. House Judiciary chairman, Jim Jordan wants to interview the division of H.H.S. in charge of child migrants.
Add all this to the all-important investigations of Hunter Biden, drag queens, Twitter censorship, Alvin Bragg and more Hunter Biden. Who knows, just like J.D. Vance has now become a champion of tighter rail safety regulation, Jim Jordan will find himself backed into a corner with no choice but to advocate for tougher child labor regulations and penalties. Stranger things have happened. (Well, maybe not…)
But so far, no Republicans are co-sponsoring the Schatz bill.
But really? Companies are “Auditing?” “Investigating?” A single reporter just had to stand outside the plants gates for a few nights to find hundreds of clearly underage workers. But these shocked-and-very-serious-and-concerned companies haven’t been able to “investigate” to figure it out for themselves?
Even some companies employing children have become woke to the problem:
The Times reported that in Michigan, children make auto parts at companies that supply Ford and General Motors. One of the suppliers, the publicly traded company ABC Technologies, said in a statement that it took the issue seriously and was conducting an outside audit.
Sister Schubert’s Homemade Rolls, which is owned by the publicly traded company Lancaster Colony Corporation, said it had been unaware children were working in its plant, but was now investigating. Walmart and Target, which sell the rolls, have said they are investigating as well.
Yeah, yeah, great news. But really? Companies are “Auditing?” “Investigating?”
I mean a single reporter just had to stand outside the plants gates for a few nights to find hundreds of clearly underage workers. But these shocked-and-very-serious-and-concerned companies haven’t been able to “investigate” to figure it out for themselves?
Even in states where legislators see a future in increasing the number of children working in the factories, the flood of media stories seems to be having some affect. Veteran labor journalist Steve Greenhouse reports:
Thanks to news media coverage, there was such widespread condemnation from across the United States to parts of the Iowa child labor bill that Republicans in the Iowa House eventually deleted the parts that would let children work in meatpacking plants and would free employers from liability if young workers were hurt or killed on the job.
The Iowa bill would still let 16- and 17-year-olds serve alcoholic beverages in bars, however—an idea that critics say could lead to sexual harassment and even sexual attacks by tipsy or drunk customers. Critics also warn this provision might encourage more underage drinking
The Solution to Child Labor: More Child Labor?
Several journalists and think-tank reports are investigating the surge of red-state legislation that would make it easier to exploit child labor. An extensive report by the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) “identifies bills weakening child labor standards in 10 states that have been introduced or passed in the past two years alone. ”
Already in 2023, eight bills to weaken child labor protections have been introduced in six Midwestern states (Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, Ohio, and South Dakota) and in Arkansas, where a bill repealing restrictions on work for 14- and 15-year-olds has now been signed into law. One bill introduced in Minnesota would allow 16- and 17-year-olds to work on construction sites.
A Washington Post editorial by Helaine Olen laments that child labor has become a partisan issue:
Yes, politicians from both parties are decrying the growing problem of child migrant labor. But whether children should work more hours in dangerous jobs appears to be settling in as a partisan issue. Republicans in statehouses nationwide are racing to make it easier for companies to hire youngsters. This isn’t just an attempt, as proponents claim, to address post-pandemic worker shortages while freeing teens to earn pocket money. It is part of an ongoing campaign to roll back worker protections.
The new Arkansas law—by not requiring work certificates—will make it easier for kids to take potentially exhausting or exploitative jobs without their parents’ knowing the details and will make it easier for employers to ignore age requirements and take advantage of young workers.
Greenhouse notes the cruelty and irony of an Arkansas law recently signed by Government Sarah Huckabee Sanders that would eliminate the requirement for 14- and 15-year-olds to obtain work permits before getting a job.
Supporters of the new Arkansas law say it eliminates a tedious, time-consuming requirement, speeds up the hiring process and—at a time when there’s so much talk about parental rights—increasingly lets parents, rather than government, make decisions about when, where, and how much kids can work. But opponents of the bill, including the Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce, argue that the current work permit process is quick and ensures that parents are involved. Parents or guardians must sign a teen’s work permit application. The nonprofit group Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families warns that the new law—by not requiring work certificates—will make it easier for kids to take potentially exhausting or exploitative jobs without their parents’ knowing the details and will make it easier for employers to ignore age requirements and take advantage of young workers.
In an interview, Reid Maki, director of child labor advocacy for the National Consumers League, said the new Arkansas law was unfortunate because the work permit process lets state agencies know what work children will be doing, and “if it is egregiously dangerous, they can deny the request or point it out to the kid and the kid’s parents.”
“All this is an erosion of protections,” Maki added. “It doesn’t make sense to do this when we realize we have a crisis of children working when they shouldn’t be. It’s pretty appalling.”
And a New York Times editorial today highlights the role that business associations have in promoting harmful state legislation:
Lawmakers in these states have been vigorously lobbied by industry groups who like the flexibility of teenage employees and say that more children are needed in the work force to make up for labor shortages. One of the principal lobbying organizations pushing these bills in several states is the National Federation of Independent Business, a conservative group that supports Republican candidates and has long opposed most forms of regulation, as well as the Affordable Care Act. It has issued news releases praising lawmakers for passing bills that let businesses hire more minors for longer hours, and taking credit for supporting these efforts.
EPI points out that federal laws in some situations actually exacerbate the problem by allowing for a subminimum “training” wage of $4.25 an hour for children and exempting children working in agriculture from many of the protections that children working elsewhere receive.
Some of the state legislation being proposed may be more for messaging purposes because federal standards prevail over state laws:
Many proposed changes to state child labor laws also directly contradict federal standards designed to protect youth from well-documented dangers. The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) sets a floor on wages, hours, and child labor standards; state laws can provide more protection than federal statutes mandate, but they cannot provide less. Where state standards are weaker than those provided in FLSA, federal law preempts the state standard.
According to the EPI, “Attempts to weaken state-level child labor standards are part of a coordinated campaign backed by industry groups intent on eventually diluting federal standards that cover the whole country.”
Sixteen states already have weaker standards on youth work hours than those in the FLSA. They permit youth working for non-FLSA-covered employers to start work earlier, end work later, and work additional hours per day or week (DOL WHD 2023). Many state legislators seeking to remove prohibitions on hazardous forms of work or allow youth to work extended hours have been clear that they understand that these weaker standards would conflict with FLSA rules (remaining applicable only in non-FLSA-covered employment contexts)—and that such conflict is part of the point. Industry lobbyists backing state child labor law changes appear to view state-by-state erosion of protections as a way to build pressure for eventual relaxation or elimination of federal wage and hour standards for the whole country, legalizing forms of child labor long considered to be hazardous or exploitative and expanding the pool of low-wage labor available to employers in industries ranging from restaurants and retail to construction, logistics, and manufacturing.
And indeed, Republican — and even some Democratic — lawmakers in Washington DC are trying to address the pre-emption problem by introducing legislation that would undermine federal rules to the level of the weaker state standards.
A bill co-sponsored by Sens. James E. Risch (R-Idaho) and Angus King (I-Maine) and Maine House Democrats Jared Golden and Chellie Pingree would allow parents who own logging operations to employ their 16- and 17-year-old children to operate mechanized equipment — under supervision. Logging, for those wondering, is considered one of the most dangerous jobs in the United States. No mother or father, no matter how loving, can change that.
As the Washington Post explains
In reality, all this family talk is there to obscure the bottom line. “Child labor allows business owners to reduce average wages, while pretending they’re just providing opportunities,” says historian Erik M. Conway, co-author of the book “The Big Myth: How American Business Taught Us to Loathe Government and Love the Free Market.”
Child Labor: What Is To Be Done?
The EPI report has several recommendations for state and local governments, many of which we’ve already suggested.
For the feds, these include
- Better funding for enforcement agencies and higher penalties for violations.
- Eliminate the disparate treatment of agricultural workers under federal law.
- Support union organizing by supporting the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act which would reform the nation’s labor law to make the union election process fairer and stop employers from obstructing contract negotiations intimidating workers seeking to unionize.
- Fix our broken immigration system by including a path to citizenship for unauthorized immigrants, addressing the asylum-processing backlog, and providing adequate oversight and protection of unaccompanied migrant children after they are released to sponsors.
State Legislatures should
- Eliminate subminimum wages for youth and raise the minimum wage for everyone.
- Eliminate the two-tiered system that fails to protect children from hazardous and/or excessive work in agricultural jobs.
- Strengthen the enforcement of laws to combat wage theft by strengthening legal protections and enforcement capacity, and increasing penalties.
- Empower young workers to build (and rebuild) unions.
Recent Stories and Reports on Child Labor in the U.S.
- Alone and Exploited, Migrant Children Work Brutal Jobs Across the U.S., Hannah Dreier, New York Times
- Lawmakers Clamor for Action on Child Migrant Labor as Outrage Grows, New York Times
- A cleaning company illegally employed a 13-year-old. Her family is paying the price., Maria Sacchetti and Lauren Kaori Gurley, The Washington Post.
- Expanding child labor is exactly what America’s kids don’t need, Helaine Olen, TheWashington Post
- States Pushing to Expand Teen Workforce Risk Long-Term Damage, Steve Greenhouse, The Century Foundation
- Child labor laws are under attack in states across the country, Jennifer Sherer and Nina Mast, The Economic Policy Institute
- Child workers found throughout Hyundai-Kia supply chain in Alabama, Mica Rosenberg, Kristina Cooke and Joshua Schneyer, Reuters
- The Shocking, Sickening Reality of Child Labor in America, Tim Noah, The New Republic
I’ve undoubtedly missed some good reporting. Feel free to add them to the comments below if you are aware of anything I’ve missed.