State:
September 19, 2023
Child Labor Violations on the Rise in 2023

by H. Juanita Beecher

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According to a news release by the Department of Labor (DOL), child labor violations are on the rise, with the department seeing a 69% increase in violations since 2018. While minors are permitted to work in some occupations, the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) places many restrictions on the types of positions they can hold and the maximum hours and times of day they may work. The DOL is cracking down on employers found to be violating child labor laws and has found violations across multiple industries, including in manufacturing, food production, and hospitality. The rise in violations has become so egregious that Congress is now turning its attention to the issue.

The spike in child labor violations is in large part due to the tight labor market. Employers are desperate for workers, particularly for low-skilled jobs, which are typically the only types of jobs minors are qualified to hold. To fill empty positions, some companies are hiring minors for the first time and are less familiar with the FLSA’s requirements, leading to violations. However, even employers in industries with significant experience hiring minors are being charged with child labor violations. For example, the DOL has issued numerous child labor fines in 2023 to fast food establishments. So, all employers across all industries should pay careful attention to the FLSA’s child labor restrictions.

In general, the FLSA and its associated regulations divide child labor restrictions into two categories: agricultural and nonagricultural. For nonagricultural work, the DOL has issued 17 different hazardous occupation orders (HOs) that prohibit minors from holding certain positions or working with certain equipment, out of concern that the work is too dangerous for minors to undertake. HO 3 bans minors from holding most positions in coal mining, and HO 5 prohibits minors from operating chain saws and similar power-driven woodworking equipment.

Additionally, the FLSA heavily restricts the hours and times of day that 14- and 15-year-olds in nonagricultural positions can work—no more than three hours during the school day and no more than eight hours on a non-school day. Minors under the age of 14 are prohibited from working in almost all cases.

The rules for agricultural work are generally less restrictive than for other industries. For example, there are no restrictions for individuals 16 or older, and in some cases children as young as 10 may work. There are 10 designated hazardous occupations in agriculture (HO/As) that apply to minors under age 16, such as HO/A 1, which prohibits operation of certain types of tractors. Additionally, minors ages 10 to 15 may not work during school hours, and there are additional limitations depending on the minor’s exact age.

The penalties for child labor violations can be substantial. Employers caught violating the FLSA’s restrictions can be liable to pay fines up to $15,138 per minor and up to $68,801 if the violations result in the injury or death of the minor.

With the rise in child labor violations, there’s significant pressure on Congress to strengthen child labor laws to aid the crackdown on violators. Some elected officials are taking notice. In March, Senator Brian Schatz proposed a bill that would increase the penalty for the death or serious injury of a minor to over $600,000. A similar bill was introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives on a bipartisan basis. Moreover, in a June hearing, Acting Secretary of Labor Julie Su was asked repeatedly by the House Committee on Education & the Workforce about what the DOL was doing to combat illegal child labor. In this heightened enforcement environment, employers should take extra care to ensure they are compliant with child labor laws, particularly during the summer when many employers hire seasonal workers.

Juanita Beecher is an attorney with Fortney & Scott, LLC, in Washington, D.C. Beecher is a nationally recognized expert on Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs and U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission matters. She is Counsel to Fortney & Scott, LLC, with a focus on OFCCP regulatory affairs. Ms. Beecher’s primary focus is labor and employment law with substantial experience with class investigations by the EEOC and OFCCP. You can reach her at nbeecher@fortneyscott.com.

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