Like most workplace accidents, the tragedy that took place at a Wisconsin sawmill in June didn’t have to happen. In fact, Michael Schuls, a high school student who had turned 16 just weeks before his death, should never have been trying to unjam a stick stacker machine at Florence Hardwoods in the first place.
So concluded the Department of Labor, which on Dec. 19a nearly $1.4 million fine against the mill where Schuls was fatally injured. An investigation by the agency’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration found that Florence Hardwoods let several minors, including Schuls, perform maintenance on equipment without training and without following required safety procedures.
Florence Hardwoods disputes the agency’s allegations that it let minors operate and maintain dangerous machinery without training or safety procedures. “At no time did we intentionally put minors in harms’ way,” the company told CBS MoneyWatch in a statement.
Yet the high school football player’s death isn’t an isolated incident. Rather, it reflects the growing number of children and teens around the U.S. working in hazardous jobs meant for adults, a violation of federal laws aimed at protecting minors. The Labor Department conducted 955 investigations that found child labor violations in fiscal 2023, up 14% from the prior year. Roughly 5,800 kids were illegally employed in the 12-month period ending September 30 — up 88% since 2019.
Accordingthe Bureau of Labor Statistics, 57 children 15 years and younger died from injuries sustained at work between 2018 and 2022; 68 teens ages 16-17 died on the job during the same five-year period.
“This is happening now”
In the 1990s, federal watchdogs looking into reports of employers using underage workers would typically find teens working overly long hours in malls, movie theaters and grocery stores; in the worst cases, minors would be discovered in grueling jobs like farming or construction.
In recent years, however, investigators have documented a surge in underage workers in potentially dangerous jobs. Among other types of work, young employees are increasingly turning up in manufacturing facilities and in meat processing plants, where the work might entailto clean the blood and other remains on the slaughterhouse floor.
“This is a 21st century problem in the United States — this isn’t a third-world country. In the United States this is happening now. We have very young minors doing serious, hazardous jobs, using dangerous equipment,” a spokesperson for the Labor Department told CBS MoneyWatch.
Multiple factors are driving the troubling rise in child labor, which conjures images from the turn of the 20th century through the 1930s,American children 10 and younger commonly worked on farms, on the street and in industrial settings.
In recent years, an influx of migrant children fleeing poverty and violence in Latin America has provided a pipeline of workers for employers willing to exploit them, particularly given that many kids arrive in the U.S. without a parent. As of December 1, theremore than 10,500 unaccompanied children in the care of the Department of Health and Human Services.
A number of states are also moving to weaken rules against child labor. Since 2021, at least 10 states have introduced or passed laws rolling back protections for children, the Economic Policy Institute noted in a recent. The legislative push is “part of a coordinated campaign backed by industry groups intent on eventually diluting federal standards that cover the whole industry,” according to the left-leaning think tank.
Relatedly, a tight labor market has made it harder for meat processors, farms, roofing contractors and other employers to find workers willing to do physically taxing, often low-paying work.
Meanwhile, although in 2023 the Labor Department has slapped businesses with more than $8 million for employing minors, for larger employers such fines are often considered the cost of doing business. The maximum civil monetary penalty for a child labor violation is $15,138 a child.
“We’ve seen these penalties paid the next day. They cut the check and move on — that is a challenge for us,” said the Labor Department spokesperson, who noted that the agency has urged Congress to increase the allowable fines.
Another factor is that many workers are hired through outside staffing firms, insulating employers from potential liability if violations occur. For instance, major poultry and meat producers have often denied any knowledge of children working in their plants, pointing to the third-party firms they hire to recruit employees.
A “hardworking, loving” boy
The recent fine against Florence Hardwoods followed a September settlement under which the company agreed to pay roughly $191,000 after Labor Department 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 Secretary of Labor Julie Su said in a statement earlier this month after Florence Hardwoods agreement was announced. “Federal child labor and safety regulations exist to prevent employers from putting children at risk.”
In examining what led to Schuls’ death, federal investigators found him to be among nine minors, ages 14 to 17, employed at the mill. Some of the teens operated saws and other automated equipment to process lumber, which is illegal for people under 18, the agency.
Aside from Schuls, three kids ages 15 to 16 suffered injuries at Florence Hardwoods between November of 2021 and March 2023, the Labor Department found. The day after Schuls’ death, the mill’s operator terminated all of the children’s jobs, the agency noted.
In Schuls’ case, Florence County Sheriff’s Office reports obtained by the Associated Press said he hadn’t pressed a safety button to turn off a conveyor machine before stepping on it to straighten wood that was hampering the equipment. He was trapped for 17 minutes before a supervisor found him unconscious. The cause of death was traumatic asphyxiation, the county coroner told.
Schuls was a “hardworking, loving” student at Florence High School, where he played football, basketball, baseball and soccer, according to his.