State officials say Wisconsin has seen an upward trend in child labor complaints since 2018, while the U.S. Labor Department says its seen a 69 percent increase in cases of children being illegally employed during the same period.
The federal government is currently investigating over 600 cases of possible child labor exploitation. In the last fiscal year alone, the Department of Labor identified 835 companies operating in violation of child labor laws affecting 3,800 children, and saw a 26 percent increase in minors employed in hazardous occupations.
Violations can vary from children working more hours than allowed under law, to working with prohibited equipment or working in industries that they shouldn’t be.
Federal officials last week announced new efforts to combat the rise in child labor exploitation through a partnership between the U.S. Department of Labor and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. They also called on Congress to increase financial penalties for child labor violations and to boost funding for enforcement of child labor laws.
The announcement came after the Department of Labor resolved one of the largest child labor cases in the department's history following an investigation of Wisconsin-based Packers Sanitation Services Inc., and after The New York Times published an investigation into the widespread exploitation of migrant children in dangerous jobs that violate child labor laws.
"This is not a 19th century problem — this is a today problem," U.S. Secretary of Labor Marty Walsh said in a statement. "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."
On Friday, U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wisconsin, joined colleagues in Congress to introduce the Child Labor Prevention Act, which aims to help stop illegal child labor by increasing maximum fines for violations and establishing criminal penalties for using child labor.
Baldwin’s office said the legislation would also provide inflationary increases for financial penalties over time, as well as close a loophole in the Fair Labor Standards Act that allows companies to employ minors who are "independent contractors."
"In no world is it acceptable for employers to be making money off child labor, and our laws must reflect that by cracking down on the exploitation of children," Baldwin said in a statement.
Child labor in Wisconsin by the numbers
In 2018, the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development’s Equal Rights Division received 18 minor employment complaints. Last year, the department received 86 complaints, according to Jennifer Sereno, the department’s communications director.
"Minor employment complaints have been trending upward since 2018, coinciding in part with outreach efforts by the department's Equal Rights Division to encourage reporting as well as the implementation of online tools that make it easier to file reports," she said via email.
Of the 86 complaints, financial penalties have been paid or imposed in 13 violations, nine were dismissed or withdrawn and 64 remain under investigation, Sereno said.
"Wisconsin's minor employment laws are designed to protect youth in the workplace," she said. "These laws ensure minor workers put their health and education first by limiting the number of hours they can work as well as the type of work they can perform."
On the federal level, the number of child labor violations in Wisconsin identified by the U.S. Department of Labor have ebbed and flowed, according to the department’s Wage and Hour Division. The department identified 64 violations in 2018, 157 in 2019, 69 in 2020, 113 in 2021 and 92 in 2022.
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Compared to its neighbors, Wisconsin had the second most child labor violations, averaging 99 per year since 2018. Illinois averaged 52.8 violations per year, Michigan averaged 260.4 and Minnesota averaged 39.6.
Federal agencies work to stop child labor
To address the issue, the U.S. Department of Labor is leading an interagency task force to improve information sharing between federal agencies.
The department is also working to ensure businesses contracting for services know who’s working in their facilities, as well as enhancing enforcement efforts and criminal referrals where warranted. Part of that focus will be on the rising number of unaccompanied minor children who have been making their way into the United States shelter system in record numbers.
"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," Walsh said. "Too often, companies look the other way and claim that their staffing agency, or their subcontractor or supplier is responsible."
The Department of Health and Human Services will mandate follow-up calls with unaccompanied children who report safety concerns to the Office of Refugee Resettlement National Call Center.
It also plans to expand services for unaccompanied children, conduct an audit of the vetting process for possible sponsors of unaccompanied minors and create new training materials to educate unaccompanied minors on their rights.
"Every child in this country — regardless of their circumstance — deserves protection and care as we would expect for our own child," Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra said in a statement.
What's causing the rise in child labor?
Laura Dresser, associate director of the COWS economic think tank at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said the rise of unaccompanied minors crossing the southern border has played a role in the rise in child labor.
"Companies are systematically taking advantage of underage immigrant workers who probably don't have status and often don't have family with them," she said. "And that means they're extra isolated and extra vulnerable."
The ongoing labor shortage, she said, has compounded the problem. While many employers have gotten creative to make their systems more efficient and to attract more workers, others have taken shortcuts, Dresser said.
"There's some evidence that desperation does push some actors, who may have been soft on the rules anyway, in the direction of breaking them more explicitly, more systematically, more frequently or more brutally," she said.
Dresser added that child labor laws are important for multiple reasons, including safety of children, improving work standards for everyone and ensuring minors receive an education.
"Child labor standards are about holding a strong system about what work should be, but also being clear that we invest in public education so kids can go to school, and learn and be able to realize — in work and in society — a decent life," she said.