Some jobs teach kids good work habits and skills. Some jobs kill them.
Last Thursday morning, two weeks into summer vacation, sixteen year-old Lee’s Summit High School sophomore Will Hampton headed off to a summer job at the Lees Summit Resource and Recovery Park. But Will never came home. At around 10:00 that morning, Will was crushed to death when he was pinned between a tractor-trailer rig and its trailer.
The plant is owned by the city of Lees Summit, Missouri, and operated by KC Dumpster Company LLC.
It is unclear at this time whether the work Will was doing violated state or federal child labor rules. OSHA is investigating the teen’s death and has apparently also referred the case to the Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division which regulates child labor. Wage and Hour lists the jobs that workers under age 18 are not allowed to do. And the Missouri Department of Labor has a list of jobs that minors under age 16 are not allowed to do. What actual job Hampton was doing when he was killed, and how these state and federal rules match up remain to be seen.
Whatever the rules actually say, it seems obvious that a 16-year old shouldn’t have been working at the facility in hazardous areas.
Child Labor: A National Problem or a Business Opportunity?
Hampton’s death comes at a time of heightened concern about child labor. The New York Times, Reuters, the Washington Post and others have published major investigative pieces about illegal employment of migrant children, while the Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour division reports a near quadrupling of the number of children involved in child labor violations since 2015 at the same time their budget has been cut in inflation-adjusted dollars.
Last February, the federal Wage and Hour Division found that Packers Sanitation Services Inc. (PSSI) had illegally employed at least 102 children – from 13 to 17 years of age – in hazardous occupations and had them working overnight shifts at 13 meat processing facilities in eight states. As a result, PSSI has paid $1.5 million in civil money penalties.
But for some, child labor is not a crime, it’s an opportunity
But for some, child labor is not a crime, it’s an opportunity –despite the the exploitation, hazards and deaths.
Severe labor shortages make it hard for employers to find workers in some parts of the country. But the ever-resourceful business community has found their solution. Instead of trying to increase legal immigration or fund apprenticeship programs for older children and young adults, instead of tightening child labor laws and cracking down on violators, some mostly Republican-controlled states, including Missouri, are attempting to weaken child labor protections by decreasing the age and increase the hours at which children could work dangerous jobs.
Earlier this year, a Missouri Senate committee cleared a bill eliminating work permits for teens and legislation that would extend working hours for teens 16 and older, from 7 p.m. on a school night to 10 p.m., has advanced in the Missouri House.
Last March, Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders signed a law rolling back requirements that the state verify the ages of workers under 16 and provide them with work certificates permitting them to work. The new law will make it harder for Arkansas and federal regulators to track down child labor violations. Bills in other states, including Iowa and Minnesota, would allow some teenagers to work in meatpacking plants and construction.
According to a report from the Economic Policy Institute,
Across the country, the primary proponents of these laws are business groups and their state affiliates, particularly the National Federation of Independent Business, the Chamber of Commerce, and the National Restaurant Association. Hotel, lodging, and tourism associations, grocery industry associations, home builders, and Americans for Prosperity—a billionaire-funded right-wing dark money group—have also supported bills in various states.
House Dems Want To Take Action
House Labor and Workforce Committee Ranking Member Bobby Scott (D-VA) and Workforce Protections subcommittee ranking member Alma Adams (D-NC) sent a letter to Committee Chair Virginia Fox (R-NC), calling on Committee Republicans to hold a hearing on child labor “this month so that Committee members have the opportunity to hear about the nature and scope of the child labor problem confronting the country and the legislative solutions to address it.”
The letter stated that Democrats intend to introduce “a comprehensive bill to toughen penalties for child labor violations and unsafe workplaces that harm children, expand research and expertise on these issues, update standards about occupations too hazardous for the employment of children, and track the statistics on the scope of child labor violations. Other legislative solutions may yet surface, especially if we have a proper hearing to discuss the problem.”
Funding for the Wage and Hour Division is at a critical low. According to an Economic Policy Institute report
Wage and Hour Division)—the main agency in charge of protecting wages and working conditions at U.S. workplaces—employed only 782 investigators to police a U.S. labor market of 144 million. WHD employed 1,232 investigators at its peak in 1978—more than four decades ago when the labor force they were responsible for protecting had only 85 million workers.
Rep. Foxx, reluctant to look into the root causes of child labor in this country or solutions (especially if they might necessitate higher fines or — God forbid — a budget increase for the Wage and Hour Division), countered that the committee had already spent four hours at a hearing last week yelling at Labor Secretary nominee Julie Su about the many failures of the Biden administration, including child labor.
So that should suffice.
The problem, according to Republican Committee members, isn’t low funding levels for labor enforcement agencies, or Republican attempts to weaken child labor laws, but rather “the now-open border and the willful ignorance of DOL to enforce the law.”
Tell that to Will Hampton’s parents and friends.