A saw blade cuts through a ponderosa pine log

A saw blade cuts through a ponderosa pine log at a sawmill near Deer Lodge, Montana on September 12, 2019.

(Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Wisconsin Teen's Death at Sawmill Highlights Danger of Corporate Push to Roll Back Child Labor Laws

The current effort to weaken child labor laws across the United States "reflects a coordinated multi-industry push to expand employer access to low-wage" workers, says the Economic Policy Institute.

The recent death of a 16-year-old boy from injuries sustained while working at a sawmill in northern Wisconsin has drawn renewed attention to the dangerous implications of the ongoing assault on child labor protections across the United States.

The Florence County Sheriff's Office responded last Thursday morning to a 911 call for an unresponsive teenager at the Florence Hardwoods logging company. Police said the boy was taken to a local hospital before being transferred to Children's Wisconsin in Milwaukee, where he died on Saturday.

The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is investigating the fatal industrial accident. OSHA has made a referral to the U.S. Department of Labor's Wage and Hour Division for potential child labor violations relating to hazardous jobs.

The deceased victim was unlawfully employed. As Wisconsin Public Radioreported Monday: "In Wisconsin, minors are prohibited from working in many occupations in logging and sawmills. According to the state Department of Workforce Development, children under 18 are prohibited from entering a sawmill building. They are also not allowed to work felling or bucking timber, collect[ing] or transporting logs, operating or assisting in operating power-driven machinery, handling or using explosives, working on trestles, working on portable sawmills, working in lumberyards used for storing green lumber or using a chainsaw."

"State officials say child labor complaints more than quadrupled from 2018 to 2022. The Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development's Equal Rights Division received 18 minor employment complaints in 2018 and 86 complaints last year," the outlet noted. "Over the same period, the U.S. Labor Department says it's seen a 69% increase nationally in cases of children being illegally employed during the same period."

Wisconsin is one of 14 states where lawmakers have introduced or approved bills since 2021 to loosen rules governing what kinds of workplace duties minors are allowed to perform and for what wages. The Economic Policy Institute (EPI) has argued that this deregulatory blitz is driven by corporations' desire to increase exploitation.

"The trend reflects a coordinated multi-industry push to expand employer access to low-wage labor and weaken state child labor laws in ways that contradict federal protections," EPI researchers Jennifer Sherer and Nina Mast wrote earlier this year. "And the recent uptick in state legislative activity is linked to longer-term industry-backed goals to rewrite federal child labor laws and other worker protections for the whole country."

Of the 19 child labor rollbacks proposed over the past two years, seven have been signed into law in five states (Arkansas, Iowa, Michigan, New Hampshire, and New Jersey). Most of the legislation has been unveiled and advanced by Republican lawmakers, but not all of the blame can be placed on the GOP's shoulders. For instance, a 2022 New Jersey law to extend work hours and postpone breaks has Democrats' fingerprints all over it. In addition, Democratic Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer chose not to veto a pair of laws enacted in 2022—one to lower the minimum age for working at a liquor store and another the age to serve alcohol.

Last year, Democratic Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers vetoed a bill passed by the state's Republican-controlled House and Senate that would have increased the number of hours minors are allowed to work. Even if the Wisconsin teen's sawmill death cannot be attributed to recent attacks on child labor laws, it underscores the lethal consequences that could result from attempts to put kids back in factories.

In neighboring Iowa, for example, GOP-passed legislation rubber-stamped by Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds does the following, according to EPI:

  • Allows employers to hire teens as young as 14 for previously prohibited hazardous jobs in industrial laundries or as young as 15 in light assembly work;
  • Allows state agencies to waive restrictions on hazardous work for 16-17-year-olds in a long list of dangerous occupations, including demolition, roofing, excavation, and power-driven machine operation;
  • Extends hours to allow teens as young as 14 to work six-hour nightly shifts during the school year;
  • Allows restaurants to have teens as young as 16 serve alcohol; and
  • Limits state agencies' ability to impose penalties for future employer violations.

"Multiple provisions in the new state law conflict with federal Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) prohibitions on "oppressive child labor" involving hazardous conditions or excessive hours that interfere with teens' schooling or health and well-being," EPI pointed out.

The law went into effect last Saturday, the same day the 16-year-old succumbed to his sawmill injuries in Wisconsin.

The tragedy in Wisconsin is also a reminder that existing state and federal laws are already inadequate.

Skip Mark, a University of Rhode Island professor specializing in labor and human rights, toldThe Guardian on Thursday that the nation's agricultural industry remains a hotbed of child labor.

"The U.S. Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 helped limit child labor in many ways. However, it did and still does not apply to the agricultural sector, where most child labor in the U.S. and most child injuries and deaths occur," Mark explained. "Child labor is most common in agriculture where children are maimed, killed, exposed to dangerous chemicals, underpaid, and we've known about these issues for decades."

"Child labor is hard to measure, and most estimates are terrible and should not be taken at face value. Governments don't want to report how bad child labor is because it makes them look bad," said Mark. "Businesses don't want to report that they have hired children because then they would have to pay fines. Children and their parents don't want to report child labor because they need the job to support themselves and would lose their job if it was reported."

Terri Gerstein, the director of the Project on State and Local Enforcement at the Harvard Law School Center for Labor and a Just Economy, shared similar concerns.

"To stop violations of child labor laws, we need more funding for enforcement, higher penalties, and clear, attainable ways to hold lead corporations accountable for violations in their supply chains," Gerstein told the newspaper.

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