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Report urges states to step into the gap, step up enforcement of child labor laws

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Report urges states to step into the gap, step up enforcement of child labor laws

Feb 28, 2024 | 6:30 am ET
By Erik Gunn
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Report urges states to step into the gap, step up enforcement of child labor laws
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A JBS meat packing plant Greeley, Colorado, was one of 13 plants in eight states where Packers Sanitation Services illegally employed children, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. A new report recommends ways that state and local governments can help curb child labor as authorities report sharp increases in violations of child labor laws. (Chet Strange | Getty Images)

Amid a surge of federal child labor law violations, a new report recommends that states spend more on enforcement, tighten state child labor laws and, in many cases, increase the penalties for violators.

Some states do impose hefty fines for at least some violations. But the report’s author, Terri Gerstein, said that one of the biggest surprises to her as she compiled the information was “how absurdly minimal the consequences are under most state laws for child labor violations.”

Report urges states to step into the gap, step up enforcement of child labor laws
Terri Gerstein, NYU Wagner Labor Initiative director

The report, “Policies for states and localities to fight oppressive child labor,” is a joint project of the Economic Policy Institute (EPI), in Washington, D.C., and the NYU Wagner Labor Initiative, where Gerstein is the director. The initiative is housed at the New York University Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service.

Gerstein said the aim of the report was to highlight opportunities for state and local governments to strengthen child labor protections.

The U.S. Department of Labor reported child labor violations rose 88% between 2019 and 2023. Gerstein’s report also documents increases in state child labor violations, notably Pennsylvania, where investigations of child labor cases in 2023 were nearly three times the number the previous year — a 276% increase.

“The full scope of the problem is not yet known because numerous obstacles prevent these cases from being reported or coming to light, including fear of employer retaliation, lack of knowledge about workplace laws, distrust of government agencies, language access issues, and more,” the report states. “Nonetheless, there is clearly a significant and growing problem of children being illegally exploited at work, in jobs that are dangerous and inappropriate for them and working schedules that are not compatible with their physical and educational needs.”

‘Grossly insufficient’ enforcement funding

The report finds inadequate enforcement of child labor laws due to “grossly insufficient” federal and state funding.

The U.S. Labor Department Wage and Hour division, which enforces federal child labor laws along with numerous other worker protections, had 733 investigators as of late 2023 — nearly 500 fewer than in 1978, according to the report. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration would require 162 years to inspect every workplace in the U.S. once, the AFL-CIO calculated in 2022. In many states labor departments are also underfunded, the report says.

“The lack of sufficient investigators and starving of labor enforcement agencies, both at the state and federal levels, allow too many employers to exploit workers with impunity because of the lack of consequences they are likely to face,” the report says.

“I continue to be really disturbed by the underfunding and insufficient resources for all kinds of workplace enforcement in our country,” Gerstein said in an interview. “We need to adequately fund the government to keep everyone safe.”

Young workers are vulnerable and less likely to complain about violations, according to the report, and the decline in unions has closed off another channel for violation reports to reach investigators.

While hampered enforcement has reduced the chances of detecting violations,  “when detection does occur, the potential consequences are too modest,”  the report states.

In most states, penalties of less than $1,000 per violation are common, according to the report. First-time violators in Idaho face a minimum fine of $50, for example, and in Indiana, the maximum penalty is $400, while in South Carolina first-time violators may simply get a warning letter. State penalties peak at $10,000 per violation in California and Delaware. Maine is an exception, with fines of up to $50,000 for repeat violators.

Increased enforcement funds, increased penalties

The report recommends increasing funding for the enforcement of child labor laws, and increasing civil and criminal penalties for violators.

When major corporations work through other entities, penalties are often borne by subcontractors, staffing companies and other “low-level actors,” the report finds, while the companies at the top with “the leverage to actually stop violations” are often ignored. For that reason, the report recommends pushing responsibility for following the law up that chain, “so that lead corporations cannot evade responsibility through use of subcontractors, employment agencies, or other intermediaries.”

The report also recommends tough restrictions that prevent child labor violators from getting government contracts until violations are remedied, and laws that allow investigators to stop work and keep goods made with illegal child labor from the market.

It suggests changes to workers compensation and other laws that would allow lawsuits for damages when child workers are injured or killed on the job. Because of the shortage of enforcement resources, it also recommends allowing private lawsuits that families could bring against violators of child labor laws.

In addition, the report proposes mechanisms to give young people who are the victims of child labor violations damages or restitution.

One such mechanism is already in place in Wisconsin law, which calls for paying minors who have worked outside of legal hours or in jobs that violate state work rules for their age double pay for the hours they worked in violation.

Gerstein said that while that penalty “seemed pretty modest, at least it’s a little something.” But addressing more ways of directly compensating the young people who have been made to work in violation of protective laws “is a really important piece that is now completely missing,” she added.

Adapting other strategies to curb child labor

Many of the recommendations, such as the stop work order proposal and holding businesses higher up in a chain of responsibility accountable, are “based on laws that actually exist in some jurisdictions in the United States,” Gerstein said. “There are tools out there that are being used in other ways, and they could be brought to bear on this problem.”

Another change that the report recommends is for states that don’t require work permits for children under 18 to institute them. A concerted movement to weaken state child labor laws, including to eliminate work permits for teens, has been promoted across the country, Gerstein observed.

Wisconsin eliminated work permits for 16- and 17-year-olds late in former Gov. Scott Walker’s second term. Republicans in the Legislature have passed a bill abolishing permits required for teens who are 14 and 15, claiming that they are  a bureaucratic interference for families and teens who want to work.

Gov. Tony Evers is expected to veto the legislation, which legislative Democrats voted against, noting that work permit fees in Wisconsin fund child labor law enforcement and that the state’s permit process is simple.

“It’s a terrible idea at any moment, and it happens to be occurring at the worst possible moment — when we’re seeing this recurrence of violations,” Gerstein said.

Permits are “not just needless paperwork,” she said. She credits the permit system with helping to ensure that parents and teens understand the protections that child labor laws provide and the impact that a teen job can have on school work, as well as making it clear that the employer knows the worker is a minor.

“It’s a way of keeping everyone in the loop.”