Labor experts say that franchised chains have higher rates of violations than corporate-run chains because they are less invested in preserving a brand’s reputation. They are also under pressure to keep labor costs low to make up for steep operating costs, especially franchise fees, which can range from $20,000 to $100,000 or more for multiple locations.
I have (unfortunately) written often about the growing scourge of child labor — especially in dangerous food processing industry — as well as kids working in construction and as roofers, now one of the most common and most dangerous jobs for immigrant children.
The problem is getting worse, with more states — backed by right-wing think tanks — simultaneously creating labor shortages by making it harder for undocumented immigrants to work, while attempting to solve the labor shortage by making it easier to bring more kids into the workforce.
The biggest new “news” (although there’s really nothing “new” about it) is the growing awareness of child labor problems in the nation’s fast food franchise industry. Last month, the Washington Post published an analysis of federal data showing that “The fast-food industry is fueling a surge in child labor violations across the United States, especially at companies with franchised locations such as McDonald’s, Sonic and Chick-fil-A.”
Since the widespread labor shortages of the pandemic, fast-food companies have illegally scheduled thousands of teenagers to work late and long hours and to operate dangerous kitchen equipment, The Post found. In some cases, companies have hired children 13 or younger — violating 1930s-era laws designed to protect their safety and educational opportunities. Federal law prohibits 14- and 15-year-olds from working past 7 p.m. and more than three hours on school nights.
Some of the Post’s findings include:
- Child labor violations have more than tripled in the past 10 years, with violations in food service increasing almost sixfold
- Minors ages 14 and 15 who work longer or later hours than legally permitted made up nearly three-quarters of the federal violations in food service between 2020 and the end of September.
- Major chains that depend on the franchise business model have much higher rates of violations than those that don’t. McDonald’s has averaged 15 violations per 100 stores since 2020, but only in franchised stores. None were found at its corporate-owned stores.
Franchised models may have higher rates of child labor violations. Why?
McDonalds is the worst offender with more than 2,300 violations since 2013. But no worries, that’s more than it seems: “McDonald’s said that number is small considering it has nearly 14,000 stores and employs some 800,000 workers nationwide.”
Good to know.
Republicans: Quit whining. Child Labor is Good For You
Republicans don’t think there’s anything wrong with all of this. In fact, in some states, as you can read below, they’re weakening, instead of strengthening child labor protections.
The most upsetting thing is the twisted reasoning they create to make more child labor sound reasonable.
One Florida legislator, justifying legislation that would loosen controls on child labor, blames limitations on child labor for “weakening our society.” Kids should start working full time like he did at 13 years old. The sponsor of the Florida bill claims that the bill doesn’t affect “children,” just “youths” who 16 and 17 years old and are able to drive cars. And Florida allegedly has better protections against hazardous working conditions than the feds. (Anyone who can identify these superior protections, please let me know.)
But according to David Weil, a former Labor Department official and current professor at the Heller School for Social Policy and Management at Brandeis University, “These are serious violations of the law. These laws are not simply arbitrary. They’re built around the fact that, as a society, we want children first and foremost to get educated so that they can live a life where they have the skills and training to have good jobs.”
Even the laws that currently exist are not sufficient to protect kids, as one Florida teacher related.
“To think that 70 years ago, we had 17-year-olds storming beaches in Normandy, but here today they can’t climb a six foot ladder. I think those concerns are wildly overblown.” — Florida Rep. Spencer Roach
But Republicans think allowing kids to work more hours on school nights isn’t a problem. In fact, it builds character:
“I can’t believe that taking away the 30-hour requirement is such a gigantic ordeal. It’s not. I would say 99% of the kids probably won’t ever work past 30 hours in a week. They have other things to do; they have their social lives, their school, time with parents and friends. But our kids are not victims,” Republican Rep. Jeff Holcomb of Hernando and Pasco counties. “They can defend themselves, and guess what? They can talk to their parents if they have issues. They’re gonna learn time management, work ethic, and they’ll learn the value of a dollar.”
And the government and woke libs are just trying to make kids into wimps, according to Rep. Spencer Roach, a Florida Republican legislator: “To think that 70 years ago, we had 17-year-olds storming beaches in Normandy, but here today they can’t climb a six foot ladder. I think those concerns are wildly overblown.”
In response to Florida Democrats’ opposition to Republicans’ efforts to weaken child labor protections,
GOP Rep. Linda Chaney — the bill’s sponsor — pushed back against Democrats’ concerns by stressing the need for teenagers to learn career skills while supporting their families financially. “This bill is about choice and opportunity for families,” Cheney said. “I trust that our families and that our teens will make the right choice for them in their own individual situation.”1
The fatal flaw in their reasoning is their willful failure to recognize power politics in the workplace: the assumption that kids have control over their work lives. But for the working kids, there’s not so much free choice.
Sure, the law may limit the number of hours a kid can work on school nights, but if the employer says “You work ten more hours this week, or you work zero hours next week,” what’s a kid who really needs the money going to do?
The fatal flaw in their reasoning is Republicans’ willful failure to recognize power politics in the workplace: the assumption that kids have control over their work lives. But in reality, for the working kids, there’s not so much free choice.
Sure, the law may limit the number of hours a kid can work on school nights, but if the employer says “You work ten more hours this week, or you work zero hours next week,” what’s a kid who really needs the money going to do?
17-year old Auxmary Valdez fears that if Florida legislation allowing longer working hours for kids becomes law, employers
will simply ask teenagers to work more and more hours — because they can. She fears the bill would lead to some tough choices for teenagers like herself trying to finish high school.
“I would have to find a way to either call off at work or cut back my extracurriculars and lower my chances at college. Like — lower my admissions chances by not being as involved in those clubs,” she said. “In the end, it’s education or money. And you do need an education to make money in the future.”
“I don’t really appreciate how these representatives are throwing us into corporate America,” added Valdez.
Labor Shortages: Why Are We Making Child Labor Great Again?
Republicans are exploiting recent changes in the U.S. economy arguing that the only way to address economy-crippling labor shortages is to expand the labor force by letting children work.
According to the Washington Post:
Child labor violations have ballooned amid a historically tight labor market that emerged after the height of the coronavirus pandemic. Millions of service sector workers abandoned riskier, public-facing jobs at fast-food chains and other restaurants for better-paying and less-grueling opportunities. Teenagers stepped up to fill the gap, marking a generational shift in attitudes toward working in high school. As inflation soared, many teenagers said, they wanted to help their families pay skyrocketing rent, groceries and utility bills.
The increasing number of unaccompanied minors coming to the United States and young people looking to help support their families have contributed to this rise.
But could part of the problem be of Republicans’ own making? Possibly by encouraging such low wages in the retail food industry that grown-up workers are fleeing the industry to find higher paying jobs?
So, solve the problem by raising wages? Nah!
How about addressing the labor shortage by “removing barriers for minor work authorization,” as a right-wing thinktank called the Alabama Policy Institute (API) called for?
Sounds good, but
In truth, the purported “shortage” of labor that the group describes is nothing of the kind; what Alabama, and the nation, are instead in the midst of is a shortage of employers.
The report writers point out gravely that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce has labeled Alabama as having among the “most severe” shortages nationwide. (It stands to reason that this is how a pro-business lobbying organization would frame a lack of people who are willing to work for unlivable wages.) But if job openings are going unfilled, that should come as little surprise in Alabama, which is one of just five states without a state wage floor. That means its minimum wage defaults to the federal rate: $7.25 an hour.
With the federal wage remaining so pitifully low and decades out of date (according to the Economic Policy Institute, its relative value is at a 66-year nadir), it’s no coincidence that, as the API’s proposal notes, “Many of these job openings are in the retail and food services industries” — i.e. jobs that pay minimum wage or potentially less, in the case of waitstaff.
Immigration Bad; Child Labor Good
Ironically, Republican ideology is facing some unreconcilable contradictions. Representative Alexandria Ocasio Cortez (D-NY) noted in a Congressional hearing that anti-immigrant hysteria is hurting the U.S. economy, part of which is suffering from serious labor shortages. Ocasio Cortez warned that “Many of these Republican legislatures would rather roll back child labor laws and put 11 and 13 year olds back in the workplace than allow immigrants into their community and do what they’ve always done,” she said.
Florida, for example, is facing the consequence of a previously passed law that made it more difficult for employers to hire immigrants in the country illegally. That law seems to have backfired on the state that is heavily dependent on immigrant workers to fill their jobs:
In a state where the largest industries — tourism, agriculture and construction — rely heavily on immigrant labor, there are concerns that the economy could be disrupted when employers are already having a hard time filling open jobs. Florida’s unemployment rate is 2.6%.
Samuel Vilchez Santiago, the American Business Immigration Coalition’s Florida director, said there are 400,000 “undocumented immigrants” working in the state and far fewer applicants than jobs.
“We are in dire need of workers,” especially in construction, the service industry and agriculture, he said. “So there is a lot of fear from across the state … that this new law will actually be devastating.”
So what’s the solution? Finding more exploitable labor. Namely children.
This is not a new solution for employer groups. In fact, not much seems to have changed over the past 120 years. In 1905, the National Association of Manufacturers opposed federal legislation that would have outlawed the transport in interstate commerce of any articles mined or manufactured by children under 14 years of age:
The chairman of the association lashed out against labor unions, which he saw as behind the move for federal legislation. He remarked, “This labor union plot against the advancement and the happiness of the American boy…is also a ploy against industrial expansion and prosperity of the country.” Believing that most children were destined for factory work, he thought the ban on child labor would deprive children of the chance to develop “good industrial habits.” Echoing these sentiments, another opponent of reform remarked, “I say it is a tragic thing to contemplate if the Federal Government closes the doors of the factories and you send that little child back, empty handed; that brave little boy that was looking forward to get money for his mother for something to eat.”
I guess that’s what’s meant by making America “great” again.
Enforcement of existing child labor laws is not easy.
The Labor Department reported late last year that child labor violations had risen to their highest level in nearly two decades. The agency found 5,792 minors working in violation of child labor laws in the year ending Sept. 30, an 88 percent increase since 2019. But the federal agency that enforces child labor rules, the Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division, is critically underfunded.
The Labor Department reported late last year that child labor violations had risen to their highest level in nearly two decades. The agency found 5,792 minors working in violation of child labor laws in the year ending Sept. 30, an 88 percent increase since 2019.
According to NY Times reporter Hannah Dreier,
The Department of Labor is facing historically low staffing levels. Right now, it would take more than 100 years for inspectors to visit every workplace once. The Department of Labor has said in a response to our reporting that it’s stepping this work up, it’s trying to open more investigations, that it has opened some investigations in response to things that we found, like kids at certain slaughterhouses, at certain factories.
But that’s not good enough for Congressional Republicans. The Republican-controlled House of Representative’s draft Department of Labor FY 2024 Appropriations bill calls for a 30% cut in the Wage and Hour Division’s budget.
OSHA is faring almost as poorly. It would take the agency almost 200 years to visit every workplace just once and House Republicans have proposed a 15% cut in OSHA’s tiny budget.
Acting Secretary of Labor Julie Su pointed out some of the other problems the Department is facing.
To evade responsibility, many large companies, including some well-known brands, have made their supply chains less transparent. They rely on vendors, sub-contractors, and staffing agencies to perform work at their facilities or make their brand-name goods. These downstream companies may skirt or break the law, cut corners, and pocket the difference. When the jobs they offer are low-quality enough that many adults won’t take them, they may illegally hire children instead. But while big brands may outsource jobs, they can’t outsource their moral responsibility to keep kids safe. They may face legal liability as well, and in those cases, my agency will seek to hold them accountable.
State officials are also having problems. According to a new audit by the New York state comptroller, state labor officials are failing to complete most child labor investigations within a reasonable timeframe — and in some cases are letting them drag on for more than a year. The state labor department reported a 68% increase in child labor violations from 2021 to 2022
The audit comes amid a national increase in child labor exploitation cases that predates the COVID-19 pandemic. Officials found state Department of Labor investigators did not meet the standard three-month timeline in nearly two-thirds of the 87 cases the comptroller’s office reviewed, including 36 cases that took more than a year to complete or were still actively being investigated.
The comptroller’s office also found the department lacks a process for identifying which child labor cases involve hazardous conditions, such as dangerous chemicals or equipment.
Last month, OSHA cited Mississippi poultry plant Mar-Jac Poultry with 14 serious and three other-than-serious violations amounting to $212,646 in penalties, following the gruesome death of 16-year old Duvan Tomas Pérez, who immigrated to the United States from Guatemala about six to seven years ago
Despite the enormous obstacles facing enforcement agencies, federal and state agency are enforcing the law, hopefully sending a message to employers.
- Last month, OSHA cited Mississippi poultry plant Mar-Jac Poultry with 14 serious and three other-than-serious violations amounting to $212,646 in penalties, following the gruesome death of 16-year old Duvan Tomas Pérez, who immigrated to the United States from Guatemala about six to seven years ago. Perez was cleaning a deboning machine that had not been turned off. He was when he was caught in the machine’s rotating shaft and pulled into it. He was contracted to work at the facility by a staffing company. Most of the violations were for the company’s failure to comply with OSHA’s Lockout Tagout standard which requires hazardous machinery to be turned off and de-energized before employees work on it.
This was the second lockout-tagout fatality at the plant. OSHA had previously cited Mar-Jac Poultry after a May 31, 2021, incident in which an employee’s shirt sleeve was caught in a machine and they were pulled in, pinning their body against the support and the machine’s carousel, resulting in fatal injuries.
“Following the fatal incident in May 2021 Mar-Jac Poultry should have enforced strict safety standards in its facility,” Petermeyer added. “Only about two years later nothing has changed and the company continues to treat employee safety as an afterthought, putting its workers at risk. No worker should be placed in a preventable, dangerous situation, let alone a child.”
The Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division, which is in charge of child labor violations, is still investigating.
- Last September, OSHA cited Florence Hardwoods LLC, a Wisconsin sawmill, for failing to train teenage and adult workers in safety procedures to prevent dangerous equipment from moving during service and maintenance tasks, after a 16-year-old worker became trapped in a stick stacker machine as he tried to unjam it. He died two days later.
The total penalty was $1.4 million for eight willful, six repeat, 29 serious and four other-than-serious violations of federal safety and health regulations.
Again, the main problem was violations of OSHA’s Lockout-Tagout standard. And again, this was not the company’s first violation.
Since 2019, at least five employees of Florence Hardwoods, Sagola Hardwoods and Minerick Logging have suffered serious injuries due to lockout failures, including a fatality at Minerick Logging where a worker suffered fatal injuries while servicing a trailer in 2019.
“It is incomprehensible how the owners of this company could have such disregard for the safety of these children,” said Assistant Secretary for Occupational Safety and Health Douglas Parker. “Their reckless and illegal behavior tragically cost a boy his life, and actions such as theirs will never be tolerated.”
- A Southern California poultry processor that supplies grocery stores including Ralphs and Aldi — Exclusive Poultry Inc. — will be forced to pay nearly $3.8 million in fines and back wages “after an investigation found the company employing children as young as 14 in dangerous jobs, retaliating against workers who cooperated with investigators and refusing to pay overtime wages.” the agency said. The children deboned meat with sharp knives and moved pallets with power-driven lifts.
- Res-Care Workforce Services in St. Marys, Pennsylvania, paid $16,795 in penalties after an investigation by the DOL found that the employment agency employed nine minors aged 14 and 15 outside of permitted hours and using equipment such as an ATV and a pole saw..
- The Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division fined Apex Roofing and Restoration LLC in Cullman, Alabama $117,175 after a 15-year-old child was killed on his first day on the job after falling 50 feet to the floor below, suffering fractures of the wrist, skull and ribs, among other severe injuries. The teen was pronounced dead at the scene of the incident.
- Washington state’s Department of Labor and Industry has cited and fined Rotschy LLC, a construction company, after a 16-year old boy, using a walk-behind trencher to dig a channel for fence posts last summer, was dragged underneath the blade, causing injuries so severe that he lost both legs to amputation. The state issued a willful violation and fined the company $156,259, the maximum penalty available.
The kid was participating in a work-based learning program that allows students to earn credit and gain experience working outside the classroom. Rotschy had a student learner exemption permitting minors to do some work that is otherwise prohibited, but use of the walk-behind trencher was not part of the exemption.
State Action: Back to the Past
As mentioned above, states have been active in making it easier for children to work long hours or in dangerous jobs. Most of the news is bad, but there have also been some victories.
Many of the state bills violate federal child labor rules which prohibit children younger than 14 from working, prevent minors under 16 from working past 7 p.m. on school nights and 9 p.m. during the summer and prohibit minors of any age from working in hazardous industries.
A recent report by the Economic Policy Institute finds 10 states have introduced or passed bills weakening child labor standards in the past two years. And this legislation is not just the result of a movement by kids to help support their families. Organizations like the National Restaurant Association and conservative think tanks are writing and lobbying for laws in several states that would either extend hours or times of day that teens can legally work or lower the age requirements for serving alcohol below 18 years.
Behind all of the legislation are shady right-wing think tanks like the Florida-based Foundation for Government Accountability (FGA), which drafts state legislation to strip child workplace protections. The Washington Post reported last year that FGA’s lobbying arm, Opportunity Solutions Project has hired 115 lobbyists across the country with a presence in 22 states, according to the nonpartisan political watchdog group OpenSecrets.
More than 70 percent of its $10.6 million in revenue came from 14 conservative groups such as the Ed Uihlein Family Foundation, the Sarah Scaife Foundation and the 85 Fund (associated with right-wing judicial activist Leonard Leo). Groups like the FGA develop prefabricated policy projects for state officials and then provide the research and lobbying support to push proposals through the states’ legislative and administrative processes.
The Florida House passed a bill last week that will allow 16- and 17-year-olds to work allow 16- and 17-year-olds to work more than eight hours in a day even if school is the next day, or more than 30 hours a week when school is in session. The legislature had also been considering legislation that would allow teenagers to work in some hazardous professions, including work on roofs and scaffolding up to six feet high. Under public pressure, the bill dropped permission to work on commercial jobs, but they’re sill allowed to work on residential construction jobs (which are apparently not as dangerous as commercial construction jobs.) Never fear, the Associated Builders and Contractors endorsed the bill. Anything for cheap, exploitable labor. (Florida’s private construction industry, according to federal data, has the highest number of workplace fatalities, so no worries.)
Also, the federal Fair Labor Standards Act, prohibits employers from allowing minors under the age of 18 to perform roofing activities and engaging in any work that requires the use of ladders or scaffolds. But states’ rights. Right?
One co-sponsor of the legislation, Sen. Keith Perry, who owns a construction company, has a history of wage theft and OSHA violations. Perry sees no connection between his private roofing business and his support for legislation making it easier for kids to work in construction. Perry admits he has no idea about the injury data regarding kids in construction, but he’s pretty sure more kids get hurt playing football than working construction. (Note to Sen. Perry. Read this report from the National Institute For Occupational Safety and Health which shows that children working on construction sites are six times as likely to be killed on the job compared to minors working elsewhere.)
And Florida kids are too tough to need breaks. The Florida bill would “eliminate the requirement that teenagers be granted breaks every four hours of work. The bill says teens should get breaks in the same manner of other employees — which can mean no breaks. Florida employers, under law, are not required to offer food or rest breaks.
Florida kids are too tough to need breaks. The Florida bill would “eliminate the requirement that teenagers be granted breaks every four hours of work. The bill says teens should get breaks in the same manner of other employees — which can mean no breaks. Florida employers, under law, are not required to offer food or rest breaks.
And and argument that will surely infuriate evangelicals by allowing kids to work on the sabbath…
The Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association backs the bill. Samantha Padgett, the group’s vice president of government relations, said members say current restrictions are outdated and make staffing particularly difficult on Sunday evenings. Padgett said that mandated break restrictions for teens are “especially challenging in the restaurant space” because they often fall in the middle of a rush period.
Just to put icing on the cake, Florida Republicans also rejected a series of amendments, including provisions that would require employers to report workplace sexual harassment and inform employees of their rights. Because who wants workers — especially children — to know their rights? How can that possibly help productivity? Anyway families and kids know best.
Anyway, none of this is a problem. Florida has a total of seven employees dedicated to enforcing child labor law across thousands of job sites. What could go wrong?
On the other hand, Virginia delegate Holly Seibold has introduced legislation that would increase civil penalties for employers who violate child labor laws. Under the bill, the penalty for employing a child who is seriously injured or dies in the course of employment would increase from $10,000 to $25,000. The penalty for each other violation of child labor laws would increase from $1,000 to $2,500.
Republicans have introduced bills in Indiana that would repeal certain requirements on child performers and repeal work hour restrictions for minors ages 16 through 18 But the bill does not prohibit 16 to 18-year-olds from working in “hazardous” occupations on farms. Another bill would allow the state Department of Labor to provide waivers to “student learners” or apprentices ages 16 and 17 who want to work in certain “hazardous” occupations. But never fear, employers. If a kid gets hurt of killed, the bill provides a get-out-of-jail-free card. The bill exempts employers involved in “work-based learning courses” from civil liabilities if a student is injured or dies while working at the employer’s business.
The good news is that language allowing children to work in the most dangerous jobs (already prohibited by federal law) has be removed from the bill. Provisions denying injured kids access to workers comp or suing their employer if they got injured were also defeated.
According to former OSHA Chief of Staff Debbie Berkowitz who is now a fellow at the Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor, the Indiana victory was a result of pressure from a coalition of the state AFL CIO, the Indiana Community Action Poverty Institute, workers comp lawyers from the Workers’ Injury Law & Advocacy Group and the Economic Policy Institute.
The Indiana victory was a result of pressure from a coalition of the state AFL CIO, the Indiana Community Action Poverty Institute, workers comp lawyers from the Workers’ Injury Law & Advocacy Group and the Economic Policy Institute.
Last May, Iowa Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds signed a bill that extends how late 14- and 15-year-olds can work on school nights from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. and allows children as young as 14 to take previously prohibited jobs in industrial laundries, roofing and demolition. The bill had the strong backing of the Iowa Restaurant Association and the Opportunity Solutions Project, the lobbying arm of the Foundation for Government Accountability, a conservative think tank.
Last March, Arkansas passed a law that eliminated work permits and age verification for workers younger than 16. The bill was written and supported by the Foundation for Government Accountability. Although the law sounds like just a paperwork change,
“As a practical matter, this is likely to make it even harder for the state to enforce our own child labor laws,” said Annie B. Smith, director of the University of Arkansas School of Law’s Human Trafficking Clinic. “Not knowing where young kids are working makes it harder for [state departments] to do proactive investigations and visit workplaces where they know that employment is happening to make sure that kids are safe.”
Finally, legislation is being considered in states like Florida and Indiana, that would exempt home-schooled kids or drop-outs from many remaining child labor restrictions. What does this mean? Essentially, we’re going back to the 19th century where kids can just drop out of school and work.
1Just as an aside, are Florida Republicans also ready to trust families and women and children to make the right choice when it comes to women’s health and gender preferences?