A major crackdown on child-labor violations is coming, White House says

The effort will extend to beefing up enforcement staffs, increasing penalties and having federal agencies work up a national plan, the administration said.
child labor crackdown
Violations of child-labor laws are up 69%. / Photo: Shutterstock

The Biden administration pledged Tuesday to crack down on employers who fail to follow federal safeguards for minors in the workplace, an effort that could land some restaurateurs in the crosshairs.

The effort is intended to curb abuses like the employment of 102 children aged 13 to 17 by the slaughterhouse cleaning specialist Packers Sanitation Services. An investigation found the youngsters using hazardous chemicals to clean industrial meat-cutting machines such as head splitters and back saws. Some of the children worked the overnight shift.

Restaurants have seldom been found to flout child-labor laws so grossly. But they have frequently been sanctioned for such violations as allowing minors to work more hours than federal law permits on the eve of a school day, or for using equipment like a meat slicer or a trash compactor.

About 190 foodservice operations were found to be in violation of child-labor laws in 2020 and ’21 just within the U.S. Department of Labor’s Southern District. The employers paid more than $1 million in penalties.

Last month, an investigation revealed that a seven-unit McDonald’s franchisee in Pennsylvania had scheduled 154 teenage employees for more hours than they were legally allowed to work. The company was also sanctioned for allowing nine workers under 16 years of age to tend the fryer station, a violation of limits on what equipment youngsters can run.

In announcing the campaign to curb abuse of children in the workplace, the White House did not differentiate between situations that posed a significant physical danger to workers under age 18 and violations of a more technical nature, such as scheduling lapses.

The administration said the U.S. Department of Labor has seen a 69% jump in found violations of child-labor laws since 2018. In the past year alone, 835 employers have been investigated, and 600 situations are currently being assessed.

“We see every day the scourge of child labor in this country, and we have a legal and a moral obligation to take every step in our power to prevent it,” Secretary of Labor Marty Walsh said in a statement. “This is not a 19th-century problem–this is a today problem. We need Congress to come to the table, we need states to come to the table. This is a problem that will take all of us to stop.”

The stepped-up effort will begin with the formation of a cross-agency task force to study the problem and educate employers, the administration said. The task force will include the Department of Health and Human Services and will be led by Labor.

The administration also intends to draft a national enforcement effort, using data to identify areas where violations of child-labor laws appear to be rampant.

To put teeth into that effort, the White House said it will ask Congress to stiffen the penalties for violations. A violation can cost an employer no more than $15,138 per child under current law.

“That’s not high enough to be a deterrent for major profitable companies,” the administration said in announcing the crackdown.

It also intends to ask Congress for $50 million in additional funding to beef up the policing efforts of Labor’s Office of Wages and Hours and the federal Office of the Solicitor. The former lost 12% of its staff between 2010 and 2019 because Congress froze its allocation, and the latter lost 100 lawyers, the White House said.

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