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Bipartisan Senate bill would increase penalties for child labor violations and create new criminal penalties

"A 16-year-old is killed in a sawmill and multiple other kids are injured and the penalty is so small as to constitute the cost of doing business," Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, said.

A bipartisan bill introduced late Wednesday would increase penalties for child labor violations, create new criminal penalties and allow victims who are harmed by child labor violations to file civil lawsuits. 

The new legislative effort from Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, and Sen. Todd Young, R-Ind., comes amid a 69% increase in child labor violations, according to figures from the Labor Department.

“Recent data shows that child labor exploitation is not a thing of the past or a problem limited to the developing world. This bipartisan bill would strengthen our nation’s labor laws to better protect our children,” Young said.

“Some industry representatives would prefer these fines stay low forever,” Schatz said. He said he was motivated to act when he learned the fines were “miniscule.”

“You know, a 16-year-old is killed in a sawmill and multiple other kids are injured and the penalty is so small as to constitute the cost of doing business,” he said.

The bill, if passed, would introduce a new criminal penalty for those who repeatedly hire children that would include a fine of up to $50,000 and a year in jail.

Earlier this year NBC News reported that a company that hired children to clean Midwestern slaughterhouses hired the same known minor two times in a six-month period.

The new bill would also increase child labor fines from a $15,000 maximum to a new $132,270 maximum. For serious injury or death, a company could be fined up to $601,150 for each violation. The current maximum fine is $25,000.

The bill would also let children who have been harmed seek compensation.

The Labor Department has uncovered child labor violations at a wide range of businesses, from fast-food restaurants to slaughterhouses to factories and construction.

Under federal law, children under 18 are not allowed to work in most manufacturing facilities because of the dangers in the workplace. 

Employers who hire children often say they find it difficult to determine if a worker is of age because they use fake identification that says the worker is over 18.

“I think it’s not as hard as they say,” Schatz said, adding that his office has been in conversation with industry on the new child labor legislation. “The good actors want to make sure that not only are they complying, but that the law is crafted in such a way that they are not accidentally violating it.”

Fatalities in the past year and a half have exposed the dangers that children who are hired illegally can face on the job.

A 16-year-old died in July from injuries received at a Wisconsin sawmill. Labor Department investigators found the company, Florence Hardwoods, illegally employed nine children, ages 14 to 17, who operated such machinery as a chop saw and a rip saw. Another 16-year-old died cleaning a chicken processing plant in Mississippi in July.

A 17-year-old named John Gomez Garcia died in Colorado in 2022 when a trench he was digging collapsed on top of him. The autopsy showed that Garcia died when his head was crushed. The incident report from the fire department noted that when firefighters arrived on the scene, they found “frantic bystanders attempting to dig victim out.”