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Labor Dept. says States ‘irresponsible’

Recent moves in some states to loosen child worker protections are “irresponsible” and make it easier to hire children for dangerous work, the Labor Department’s top attorney said Thursday.

Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders, a rising Republican star, on Tuesday, signed legislation into law that eliminated age verification requirements for youth workers younger than 16 years old. A similar proposal is advancing in Missouri. Iowa legislators are considering a bill that would allow 14- and 15-year-olds to work certain jobs in meatpacking plants and shield businesses from civil liability if a child laborer is sickened, injured, or killed on the job. A bill in Minnesota would permit 16- and 17-year-olds to work construction jobs.

Instead of making it easier to hire youths for dangerous work, governments should try to “increase accountability and ramp up enforcement” of existing laws, Labor Solicitor Seema Nanda said in a statement. “No child should be working in dangerous workplaces in this country, full stop.”

Federal officials have pledged a crackdown on child labor law offenses after regulators discovered hundreds of violations in meatpacking plants, and after news reports emerged of children working in hazardous occupations around the country.

The Labor Department has observed a 69 percent increase in minors employed in violation of federal law since 2018, Nanda said. The agency February fined Packers Sanitation Services, a subcontractor for meatpacking plants, $1.5 million for illegally hiring children, some of whom sustained chemical burns after working with caustic cleaning agents.

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The federal Fair Labor Standards Act sets baseline regulations on the types of jobs minors can work and the number of hours they can be on the job. But those regulations are difficult to enforce; the Labor Department has far too few inspectors, experts say, to effectively police violations, leaving much of that work up to state governments.

State age verification requirements, sometimes issued by state government agencies or school officials, are a primary mechanism for keeping track of how many minors are working and in what jobs, said Reid Maki, director of advocacy at the Child Labor Coalition.

“It just seems to create a state of lawlessness,” he said of the Arkansas law.

Alexa Henning, a spokeswoman for the Arkansas governor, said Sanders believes the age verification requirements are “obsolete” rules that put “arbitrary burdens on parents.”

Nanda in her statement said that federal laws still applied, even in states that loosened their regulations.

“The Fair Labor Standards Act and its child labor protections apply in all states and no state can limit these provisions,” she said. “The department has and will continue to vigorously enforce child labor protections across the nation.

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But without help from state governments, federal officials have scant resources to investigate reports of child labor violations, experts said.

“They are stretched beyond any reasonable capacity,” said Judy Conti, government affairs director at the National Employment Law Project. “Child labor cases may well be the most labor-intensive cases of all.”

Even if companies are caught skirting the law, the penalties are minimal, said David Weil, a professor of social policy and management at Brandeis University, and a former wage and hour administrator in the Labor Department.

A senior Democratic lawmaker on Thursday offered another broadside to employers seeking to hire children.

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“If you have a business and you’re exploiting children, you’re in trouble,” Sen. Richard J. Durbin (Ill.) said in remarks on the Senate floor. “The fact that American companies are turning to children to address our nation’s labor shortage is a national disgrace.”

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