Child labor violations have been on the rise since 2015 after declining for years, according to data from the U.S. Labor Department's Wage and Hour Division. The total number of violations is much lower than it was two decades ago, but experts are still troubled.
In 2015 — the low point in the data — the Wage and Hour Division found 1,012 minors employed in violation of child labor laws, with an average of 1.9 per case. In 2022, that number more than tripled to 3,876, averaging 4.6 per case.
"We're doing more outreach and education," which helps people recognize violations, says Jessica Looman, principal deputy administrator of the Wage and Hour Division. "We also are doing more investigations."
The division is finding more minors per case, and it's not clear why. Investigators are also finding more minors working in hazardous occupations, where children could get seriously injured.
"Those numbers are creeping back up again, and that's a real concern to us," says Looman.
It's important to hold employers accountable, "but this is also an issue that is community based. It is school based. It is parent based," Looman says. "All of us together as a society and an economy have to come together and make sure that we are protecting our kids. And when we look at the increase in child labor violations, we have to ask ourselves the question, how are we letting this happen in 2022, 2023?"
What does child labor look like in the U.S.?
Child labor negatively affects the education and health of children who engage in it, experts say. Employers are responsible for ensuring a safe workplace that complies with child labor laws, Looman says.
Part of the division's focus is on prevention — educating teens about their rights and employers about their responsibilities and strategies to ensure compliance. The division also has a range of enforcement mechanisms at its disposal to respond to violations of different levels of severity, from fines to injunctions.
Looman says most violations occur in places where it's appropriate for minors to work, meaning teenagers are working too many hours at a grocery store or operating a fryer and staying too late at a fast-food chain. For example, in 2022, more than 100 kids across several McDonald's locations in Pennsylvania were illegally scheduled to work too many hours or too late at night. Subway, Burger King and Popeyes restaurants in South Carolina were fined for similar violations in 2022.
But Looman says the division is troubled by the fact that investigators are finding more children working in dangerous jobs.
There's no excuse for "why these alarming violations are occurring, with kids being employed where they shouldn't even be in the first place," Looman says.
This month, Packers Sanitation Services paid a $1.5 million fine for employing 102 children to work in dangerous meatpacking facility jobs across eight states. Last summer, Reuters revealed that children as young as 12 — many of whom were migrants — were hired to work in a metal shop owned by Hyundai.
These cases represent common types of hazardous-occupation violations found by investigators — namely cleaning or operating dangerous machinery.
The U.S. generally has good child labor laws, except for agriculture, says Reid Maki, director of child labor advocacy for the National Consumers League and coordinator of the Child Labor Coalition, which works to end abusive child labor. Minors as young as 12 can work long hours, and agriculture's hazardous-occupation orders aren't as strict as in nonagricultural industries.
While child labor violations can affect minors of all backgrounds, "a lot of the kids we see working in exploitative situations tend to be from immigrant families" and Latino, Maki said.
They're often harvesting fruits and vegetables. In a 2019 study, 30 child farmworkers in North Carolina ranging from 10 to 17 told researchers they were pressured to work quickly in dangerous conditions, faced wage theft and worked long hours in the heat.
"We walk a lot. That's hard. Sometimes your hands hurt," a 13-year-old boy who picked tomatoes told the researchers. "And your back, sometimes it will be hurting."
But immigrant children are vulnerable to other kinds of labor, too, from construction to meatpacking. Immigration raids in the early 2000s inadvertently revealed the children of migrant workers employed in meatpacking plants, and advocates like Maki have been concerned about child labor in those facilities ever since.
Maki says such workplaces are "one of the worst environments for children to be in."
Labor shortages are driving efforts to loosen child labor laws. They could be contributing to violations too.
In a tight labor market — like the current one — employers sometimes prefer to fill jobs with minors, who tend to be cheaper and more docile workers, Maki says.
"At a time when they were saying there are labor shortages, they were finding kids that would do the work," Maki says of the recent Packers Sanitation case. "I think they felt that if they could get kids, they would take them."
To ease labor shortages, lawmakers in some states have introduced legislation to loosen child labor laws, including in some of the most dangerous jobs.
Bills introduced in January in Minnesota and Iowa would allow some teenagers to work in construction and meatpacking plants, respectively. The Iowa bill would also let some youth under 16 drive themselves to work and extend the hours teenagers could work. In 2022, efforts to expand teens' working hours passed in New Jersey but weren't signed into law in two other states.
Supporters of legislation to allow minors to work more jobs and more hours say it fills an economic need and can teach them responsibility and financial literacy.
"Having kids get the opportunity to work is important," Jessica Dunker, president and CEO of the Iowa Restaurant Association, said in testimony to Iowa lawmakers. She also said minors who want to work deserve the same level of choice as those who want to participate in other after-school activities.
Maki says he and other advocates aren't against safe, part-time work for teens, where "they can learn work ethic and work skills."
But he says that allowing children to work longer hours increases the risk they'll get into car accidents — driving in the dark, exhausted — and that the jobs these bills allow minors to take are dangerous.
"There's no safe part of a loading dock," Maki says. With the provision in the Iowa bill that would lessen businesses' civil liability if child laborers got sick, injured or killed on the job, "it's as if they know that kids are going to get hurt."