While mired in the thick of a war in Israel, electing a speaker and the possibility of a second government shutdown this fall, Congress is facing a harrowing issue impacting America's youngest: A 69% increase in child labor law violations since 2018.
Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., is the latest lawmaker looking to update the nation's antiquated child labor laws after a steep increase in violations over the last several years.
Casey, who chairs the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Subcommittee on Children and Families, on Thursday will introduce the Children Harmed in Life-Threatening or Dangerous Labor Act, or CHILD Labor Act. The bill focuses on setting hasher penalties for child labor law violations and increasing accountability for violators, including contractors and subcontractors that employ children.
The Fair Labor Standards Act prohibits children under age 18 from being employed in dangerous jobs and mandates child labor provisions. Casey is looking to enhance the 85-year-old legislation with his bill.
"It is long past time we bring our child labor laws into the 21st century and fight back against the employers, contractors and subcontractors that violate them," Casey told USA TODAY.
The Department of Labor has seen a 69% increase in children being employed illegally by companies since 2018 and the agency's Wage and Hour Division conducted investigations during fiscal year 2023 that found an 88% increase in the number of children employed in violation since 2019.
Almost 5,800 kids were employed illegally during fiscal year 2023, according to the Department of Labor, which assessed more than $8 million in penalties for violations ? an 83% increase in penalties from the year prior. Violations range from physical injuries, or even death in some cases, to children working overnight shifts that violate the Federal Labor Standards Act.
“Children do not belong in factories or working during hours when they should be studying, spending time with their families, or simply being children," Casey said. "Yet too many bad actors get away with forcing kids to work long hours and under dangerous conditions."
Labor Department reports increase in children employed illegally.
Casey's legislation follows recent data from the Department of Labor's Wage and Hour Division that conducted over 955 investigations in fiscal year 2023 and enforces the child labor provisions of the Fair Labor Standards Act.
The division held more employers accountable to child labor laws in the last year than in any one year during the last decade.
Violations range in intensity. One from February resulted in a $1.5 million penalty against Packers Sanitation Services, a company that provides cleaning services at meat processing facilities. The division found the company employed more than 100 children who used strong chemicals to clean dangerous equipment.
Another violation from last month found nine children illegally employed and operating hazardous machinery at Florence Hardwoods, a Wisconsin-based sawmill operator. One child died from work-related injuries.
The maximum civil penalty under current law for a child labor violation is $11,000. But for many multi-billion dollar companies, that fee is not enough to deter them from violating federal law.
What's in Casey's proposal?
The CHILD Labor Act of 2023 would provide enhancements to modernize the Fair Labor Standards Act and federal contracting laws to ensure companies, contractors and subcontractors that hire children are held accountable.
Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., is co-leading the legislation with Casey. It has a companion bill in the House led by Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn.
Several senators ? John Fetterman of Pennsylvania, Ron Wyden of Oregon, Tina Smith of Minnesota, Alex Padilla of California, Bernie Sanders of Vermont, Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin, Chris Murphy of Connecticut, Ed Markey of Massachusetts, Jack Reed of Rhode Island and Sherrod Brown of Ohio ? have signed on to co-sponsor Casey's bill.
Separately, Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, and Sen. Todd Young, R-Ind. introduced a bipartisan bill last week that would also increase penalties for child labor law violations.
Casey's bill includes the following provisions:
Holding contractors and subcontractors accountable in the same manner as employers who violate child labor laws
Authorize the Secretary of Labor to label goods that are produced with child labor and issue stop-work orders to any person in violation of child labor provisions
Require the Secretary of Labor to report to Congress on an annual basis with data and recommendations concerning overall trends for work-related injuries, illnesses or deaths
Increase the civil penalty amount for persons who violate child labor provisions from $11,000 to $151,380 for each child
Amend the maximum fine from $10,000 to $750,000 for criminal penalties for any person convicted of child labor violations
Require any person who violates child labor provisions to be liable to each employee affected with a minimum of $75,000 in compensatory damages
Department of Labor seeks additional funding.
As Congress looks to pass a slate of funding bills before the Nov. 17 government funding deadline, the Department of Labor is calling on Congress to meet a funding request of $50 million each for the Wage and Hour Division as well as the Office of the Solicitor of Labor to investigate child labor cases.
According to the division, between 2010 and 2019, 15% of full-time employees were lost from the annual appropriation. The division has 740 investigators nationwide who protect more than 165 million workers at 11 million workplaces.
The Department of Labor earlier this year launched an Interagency Taskforce to Combat Child Labor Exploitation and a National Strategic Enforcement Initiative on Child Labor to use data-driven strategies to initiate child-labor violations investigations.
Casey sent a letter to the Department of Labor when the task force formed urging the groups to enhance data collection to better understand where violations are taking place and better target responses.
"Recent cases of child labor violations demonstrate that we need more accountability and liability across supply chains," he wrote in the letter.