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US cracks down on child labor violations as some states roll back laws

As the Department of Labor cracks down on child labor violations, some states are making moves to roll back child labor protection laws. 
Posted at 3:14 PM, Mar 03, 2024

From labor violations to legislative rollbacks, the protections in place for America's youngest and most vulnerable workforce are being put to the test.

"I have to admit it's pretty shocking," Reid Maki, coordinator of the Child Labor Coalition, said.

In 2023, the U.S. Department of Labor released data saying it investigated 955 cases involving child labor violations, a 14% jump from 2022. Within those cases, the department says it found nearly 5,800 minors employed in violation of the law, an 88% jump from 2019.

"Last year particularly, we saw this, a significant increase in kids working in all kinds of hazardous work areas," Maki said.

In addition to being the coordinator of the Child Labor Coalition, Maki is also the director of child labor issues for the National Consumers League. He says these jobs can range from long days working in fields to overnight shifts cleaning dangerous equipment in slaughterhouses to excessive schedules in fast-food chains.

"We've seen enough in the last two years to know what's at stake. You know, it's kids getting their arms mangled, kids falling off roofs and dying, you know, kids working the night shift and falling asleep in school," Maki said.

In 2023, the Department of Labor launched a national strategic enforcement initiative to crack down on these violations. This resulted in over $8 million in penalties for employers, an increase of 83% from the previous year.

But while the department is working to fine companies that violate child labor laws, some states have been making moves to rollback legislation.

"A lot of these rollbacks that we are starting to see really came in the wake of the pandemic," Nina Mast, a state economic analyst for the Economic Policy Institute, said.

US company hired children to clean dangerous equipment in meat plants
A sign stands outside the U.S. Department of Labor's headquarters

US company hired children to clean dangerous equipment in meat plants

The news comes days after officials announced a major food safety and sanitation company illegally employed 102 children in hazardous conditions.


Since 2021, Mast says, "28 states have introduced bills to weaken child labor laws, and 12 states have enacted them." Some of the states exploring or enacting such legislation include Florida, Iowa, Ohio, and Missouri, to name a few.

"As wages have increased, employers are realizing, well, we don't want to raise wages to match what's required by a stronger labor market. And so instead, they're seeking to expand out to see young people who they can pay less and potentially exploit at lower wages," Mast said.

Some of the proposed and enacted legislative changes include the removal of work permit requirements for some age groups and the removal of limitations on scheduling hours.

Proponents of the rollbacks, such as the Foundation for Government Accountability and Opportunity Solutions Project, argue that these pieces of legislation are geared at giving teens better access to valuable work experience, alleviating labor shortages, and allowing parents more control to make decisions about their kids.

"What we don't want to do is have young people sacrificing life and limb, sacrificing their education for these low-wage, precarious, and hazardous jobs at a young age," Mast said. 

As states try to determine if child labor laws should be adjusted, Mast says we need to proceed with caution for the sake of minors across the country.