Like most workplace accidents, the tragedy that occurred at a Wisconsin sawmill in June did not have to happen. In fact, Michael Schuls, a high school student who had turned 16 just weeks before his death, should never have attempted to unjam a stick-stacking machine at Florence Hardwoods.
This is how the Department of Labor concluded, which on December 19 Announced a fine of almost $1.4 million against the factory where Schuls was fatally injured. An investigation by the agency's Occupational Safety and Health Administration found that Florence Hardwoods allowed several minors, including Schuls, to perform equipment maintenance without training and without following required safety procedures.
Florence Hardwoods disputes the agency's allegations that it allowed minors to operate and maintain dangerous machinery without training or safety procedures. “At no time did we intentionally put minors in danger,” the company told CBS MoneyWatch in a statement.
However, the death of the high school football player is not an isolated incident. Rather, it reflects the growing number of children and teenagers across the United States who perform dangerous jobs intended for adults, a violation of federal laws intended to protect minors. The Department of Labor conducted 955 investigations that found child labor violations in fiscal year 2023, up 14% from the previous year. Approximately 5,800 children were illegally employed in the 12-month period ending September 30, up 88% from 2019.
According to According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 57 children ages 15 and younger died from injuries sustained at work between 2018 and 2022; 68 teenagers between 16 and 17 years old died at work during the same five-year period.
“This is happening now”
In the 1990s, federal watchdogs investigating reports of employers using underage workers typically found that teenagers worked excessive hours in malls, movie theaters, and grocery stores; In the worst case, minors would be discovered in exhausting jobs such as agriculture or construction.
However, in recent years, researchers have documented an increase in underage workers in potentially dangerous jobs. Among other types of work, young employees are increasingly appearing in factories and meat processing plants, where the work could involveto clean blood and other remains from the slaughterhouse floor.
“This is a 21st century problem in the United States; this is not a third world country. In the United States this is happening now. We have very young minors doing serious and dangerous work, using dangerous equipment,” a spokesperson for said the Department of Labor to CBS MoneyWatch.
Multiple factors are driving the worrying rise in child labor, which evokes images from the early 20th century to the 1930s. when American children ages 10 and younger often worked on farms, on the streets, and in industrial settings.
In recent years, an influx of migrant children fleeing poverty and violence in Latin America has provided a source of workers for employers willing to exploit them, particularly given that many children arrive in the United States without their parents. Starting December 1, there are were more than 10,500 unaccompanied children in the care of the Department of Health and Human Services.
Several states are also taking steps to weaken child labor regulations. Since 2021, at least 10 states have introduced or passed laws rolling back protections for children, the Economic Policy Institute noted in a recent report. report. The legislative push is “part of a coordinated campaign backed by industry groups seeking to eventually dilute industry-wide federal standards,” according to the left-leaning think tank.
Relatedly, a tight labor market has made it difficult for meat processors, farms, roofing contractors and other employers to find workers willing to do physically exhausting and often low-paying jobs.
Meanwhile, although the Department of Labor has punished companies more than $8 million in 2023 for employing minors, for larger employers those fines are often considered the cost of doing business. The maximum civil monetary penalty for a child labor violation is $15,138 per child.
“We've seen these fines paid the next day. They cut the check and move on; that's a challenge for us,” said the Labor Department spokesperson, noting that the agency has urged Congress to increase allowable fines.
Another factor is that many workers are hired through outside staffing companies, which protects employers from potential liability if violations occur. For example, major meat and poultry producers have often denied any knowledge of children working in their plants, pointing to outside companies they hire to recruit employees.
A “hard-working and loving” boy
The recent fine against Florence Hardwoods followed a September settlement under which the company agreed to pay approximately $191,000 after Department of Labor investigators looked into child labor violations there following Schuls' death.
“There is no excuse for allowing underage workers to operate this type of machinery,” Acting Labor Secretary Julie Su said in a statement earlier this month after the Florence Hardwood settlement was announced. “Federal child labor and safety standards exist to prevent employers from putting children at risk.”
In examining what led to Schuls' death, federal investigators found that he was among nine minors, ages 14 to 17, employed at the factory. Some of the teens operated saws and other automated wood-processing equipment, which is illegal for people under 18, according to the agency. saying.
In addition to Schuls, three children ages 15 to 16 were injured at Florence Hardwoods between November 2021 and March 2023, the Department of Labor found. The day after Schuls' death, the factory operator fired all the children, the agency said.
In Schuls' case, Florence County Sheriff's Office reports obtained by the Associated Press said he had failed to press a safety button to turn off a conveyor machine before stepping on it to straighten wood that was impeding the equipment. He was trapped for 17 minutes before a supervisor found him unconscious. The cause of death was traumatic asphyxiation, the county coroner said. The ap.
Schuls was a “hardworking and loving” student at Florence High School, where he played football, basketball, baseball and soccer, according to his obituary.
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