WASHINGTON — U.S. House Education and Workforce Committee Democrats on Thursday announced the introduction of a bill to increase civil and criminal penalties for employers who knowingly violate child labor laws.
The measure would also prevent states from easing federal child labor standards.
The bill, The Protecting Children Act, comes as multiple states have passed laws that roll back child labor laws, coupled with U.S. Department of Labor investigations that have found a steady increase in child labor violations since 2015. The Department of Labor found children as young as 10 operating fryers at a McDonald’s in Louisville, Kentucky.
Among several initiatives, the bill aims to prevent state legislation from loosening federal child labor laws by amending the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, to establish that “[n]o order, rule, or regulation promulgated … shall reduce the protection afforded children by an existing order, rule, or regulation promulgated under this Act.”
The bill would not override any of the recent changes to state laws, but would surpass any state law that would allow children to work in mines or meat processing plants.
The bill is unlikely to be brought to the floor for a vote, and House Education and Workforce Chair Virginia Foxx argued that the bill does not address the issue of child labor.
“Democrats are attempting to use the current immigration crisis to justify longtime wage-and-hour wish-list items from organized labor and special interest groups while doing nothing to address the underlying problems outlined in the national press,” the North Carolina Republican said in a statement to States Newsroom.
Children who are particularly vulnerable to child labor violations are unaccompanied migrant youth. Republican and Democratic lawmakers have held several hearings on the issue, raising concerns about multiple reports on unaccompanied migrant children exploited as workers in U.S. meatpacking plants and elsewhere.
Democrats on the committee have pushed for a hearing on the issue, but Foxx argued that members would have the opportunity to ask questions about child labor violation when U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra testified.
During the hearing with Becerra, Democrats and Republicans on the House Education and Workforce committee grilled him about the agency losing contact with thousands of migrant children who were exploited.
On Thursday, the top Democrat on the committee, Rep. Bobby Scott of Virginia, said in a statement that the bill “takes long-overdue steps to strengthen child labor laws and implement serious consequences for endangering children on the job.”
“Children should be learning and growing in schools, not risking their safety and lives in dangerous workplaces,” he said. “Regrettably, recent reporting has demonstrated that children continue to lose their lives and suffer devastating injuries because they work in hazardous jobs.”
The bill aims to strengthen enforcement by increasing the maximum civil penalties, establishing new minimum penalties and doubling penalties for cases that involve the death of a child or repeat or willful child labor violations.
For example, the current maximum penalty for violating federal child labor standards is $11,000, but under the new regulations would be a minimum of $1,500 and a maximum of $150,000.
The bill also expands criminal penalties for willful child labor violations. Under current law, the penalty is a fine of no more than $10,000 and up to six months of imprisonment.
The bill would place an employer in up to a year in imprisonment if that employer “negligently places a child in imminent danger of death or serious bodily injury,” according to a fact sheet of the bill.
The fact sheet says that an employer who willfully or knowingly violates child labor laws and “knowingly places a child in imminent danger of death or serious bodily injury can, upon conviction, be punished by a fine,” and face “imprisonment up to 15 years, or both.”
It would also bar the U.S. Department of Labor for establishing rulemaking “that would roll back child labor standards and leave children less protected.”
The bill would also establish a National Advisory Committee on Child Labor, to advise the U.S. Department of Labor and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services about child labor issues, and directs the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health to be the lead agency on conducting research “related to child labor, the occupational safety and health of young workers, and the exposure or risk of exposure of vulnerable children to child labor.”