Wage and Hour Division: Working to Keep Kids Safe

A young child in protective gear scrubs down machinery in a meat processing plant using dangerous chemicals.
A Packers Sanitation Services Inc. employee cleans a meat processing plant

Finding just one child in harm's way is one too many. For the Wage and Hour Division, protecting children in the workplace has always been and continues to be our top priority. Whether from a complaint, a lead, a referral or based on our own strategic enforcement initiatives, in every Wage and Hour Division investigation of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), we ensure employers are in compliance with federal child labor laws to help keep kids out of harm's way.

We know safe first jobs allow young people to develop skills, earn money and gain valuable experience – these are the kinds of good jobs that can put young workers on the path to good careers. But there's also work that should never be done by kids, and federal law prohibits children under age 18 from being employed in dangerous jobs. This is an issue that affects all of us and as parents, caregivers, teachers, employers and community members, we cannot tolerate the exploitation of children.

In FY 2023, we concluded 955 cases with child labor violations.

While the division is focused on outreach, education and providing compliance assistance, it is also our duty to enforce the child labor provisions of the FLSA. Our investigations found a significant increase in children being employed illegally and earlier this year, we launched a National Strategic Enforcement Initiative on Child Labor to put additional emphasis on addressing this critical issue. During federal fiscal year 2023, which ended on Sept. 30, 2023, the division concluded 955 investigations that found child labor violations, holding more employers accountable for such violations than in any year in the last 15 years. We also found almost 5,800 kids employed in violation of the law, an 88% increase in the number of children employed in violation since 2019. Finally, we assessed more than $8 million in penalties for child labor violations, an 83% increase compared to last year.

Child Labor Enforcement: Chart shows the number of civil money penalties assessed by WHD rising from below 3 million in FY18 to above $8 million in FY23, and the number of children found employed in violation rising from just above 2,000 to 5,792 over the same period.

Several of our recent child labor cases found severe violations, some of which resulted in tragedy. These investigations demonstrate the ongoing threat that illegal child labor poses to kids. In February, we announced one of the largest child labor cases in the Department of Labor's history, issuing a $1.5 million penalty against Packers Sanitation Services – which provides cleaning services at meat processing facilities for companies including Tyson, JBS and Turkey Valley Farms – for employing more than 100 children using harsh chemicals to clean dangerous equipment. In September, we announced findings in the investigation of Florence Hardwoods, a Wisconsin sawmill operator that illegally employed nine children to operate hazardous machinery. One child tragically died on July 1 from work-related injuries. And this month, we announced that a national food manufacturer, Monogram Food Solutions, paid over $140,000 in penalties after we found nine teens employed illegally to operate dangerous equipment.

We currently have more than 800 child labor investigations underway.

While these enforcement results show we're holding more employers accountable for exploiting kids, they also show there's still work to do to prevent children from being exploited in the first place. The Wage and Hour Division continues to work to prevent and eliminate illegal child labor. We currently have more than 800 child labor investigations underway.

In the Department of Labor and across the administration, we are committed to continuing to focus on this critical work. That's why we are also calling on Congress to meet the funding request in the president's supplemental budget request for $50 million each for the Wage and Hour Division and the Office of the Solicitor of Labor to investigate child labor cases. Between 2010 and 2019, the division lost 15% of its full-time employees from the annual appropriation because it was nearly flat funded during this period; currently, the division has approximately 740 investigators nationwide to protect more than 165 million workers at 11 million workplaces. And the Office of the Solicitor has essentially been flat funded in its annual appropriation when compared to FY2010, resulting in the loss of more than 100 staff from its peak as costs have increased. We ask all stakeholders – including employers, lawmakers and community leaders – to join us in protecting the well-being of children across the country.

We have also been working with our partners across government – including the Interagency Task Force to Combat Child Labor Exploitation – to inform the public that illegal child labor isn't a 100-year-old problem – it's a today problem. We've also developed new tools to educate people and organizations involved in young workers' lives, including a new child labor website, a guide to dangerous and prohibited jobs, a short video series and more.

Child labor exploitation is an issue that gets to the heart of who we are as a country and who we want to be. That's why we urge people to join this fight – to collaborate with us, to report child labor violations confidentially to 1-866-487-9243 and to share our resources in English and Spanish. We appreciate your commitment to protecting children and ensuring that their first jobs are safe jobs.

Jessica Looman is the principal deputy administrator for the Department of Labor's Wage and Hour Division. Follow the division on X/Twitter at @WHD_DOL and on LinkedIn