The Biden administration on Monday unveiled a plan to get tougher on illegal child labor as high-profile cases involving migrant children increase across the country.
As part of the effort, the Departments of Labor and Health and Human Services will coordinate investigations and ensure the safety of migrant children.
Several high-profile cases, including the discovery of children as young as 13 working in meatpacking and other dangerous jobs, have reignited concerns about child labor in the United States. Experts say a tight labor market that has left employers scrambling to fill positions and an influx of children arriving from Latin America without parents have contributed to the spike in cases.
“This is not a 19th century problem—this is a today problem,” Labor Secretary Marty Walsh said in a statement. “This is a problem that will take all of us to stop.”
The Labor Department will use data to broadly determine industries in which minors are most likely to be working in violation of child labor laws, such as those employing lots of migrants or offering low-wage jobs, and then conduct more-targeted investigations.
Senior administration officials said the Labor Department is considering invoking a “hot goods” provision of labor law that would allow it to halt the interstate transportation of goods if illegal child labor is found within a supply chain.
The Labor Department, which enforces child labor laws, reported a 69 percent increase in children being employed illegally since 2018. Last year, 835 companies employed more than 3,800 children illegally, the agency found.
To address labor shortages, lawmakers in some states, including Iowa and Minnesota, have introduced bills this year to lower the minimum age of employment in certain industries. The Labor Department has deemed these proposals “hazardous.”
This month, the department fined Packers Sanitation Services, one of the country’s largest food sanitation companies, $1.5 million after an investigation found that the company had hired more than 100 minors to clean meatpacking facilities, including one in Indiana, at night. The minors worked at facilities operated by some of the country’s largest meat producers, including JBS Foods, Cargill and Tyson.
Senior administration officials said Monday that the Labor Department is investigating about 600 child labor cases.
Officials also announced that the Health and Human Services Department will require follow-up calls to migrant children who report safety concerns. The agency is also expanding resources for migrant children and their sponsors, such as help registering for school and assistance with immigration processes.
The Labor Department is asking Congress to increase penalties for companies that illegally hire children. The maximum penalty for a child labor law violation is around $15,000. Senior administration officials said the amount is too paltry to deter big companies from hiring minors illegally.