Child labor violations have been on the rise in recent years. The U.S. Department of Labor has seen a 69% increase in child labor since 2018, with more than 3,800 children impacted in the 2022 fiscal year. A report from the New York Times revealed numerous instances of child labor law violations, with children—particularly migrant children—working in cereal factories and processing meat for grocery stores.
In May, the Department of Labor obtained a preliminary federal court injunction prohibiting the operator of 14 Bay Area Subway locations from violating child labor laws, threatening and retaliating against workers and obstructing a federal investigation. The 14- and 15-year-old children, who were operating dangerous equipment like ovens and working longer than legally permitted, faced threats when they raised concerns. California labor law limits 14- and 15-year-olds to three hours of work on school days, and no work after 7 p.m.
In May, an Oakland Popeye’s franchise shut down after a labor commission complaint was filed alleging unsafe work conditions and child labor violations. According to the complaint, a 13-year-old girl worked 40 to 45 hours a week and until midnight on three school days per week. California labor law forbids 12- and 13-year-olds from working on school days. Two 17-year-olds at the same Popeye’s worked until 11:30 p.m. on school nights. State laws limit 16- and 17-year-olds to four hours of work daily during the school day and permit no work past 10 p.m.
Franchise operators at Crumbl Cookies, Chick-fil-A, Chipotle, Arby’s, and Dairy Queen have been cited for child labor violations. In early May, a Department of Labor investigation found two 10-year-old children were working, unpaid and sometimes as late as 2 a.m. at a McDonald’s franchise in Louisville, Kentucky. A 15-year-old operated a dangerous deep fryer and suffered burns at the same location. These children were among 305 child workers at McDonald’s franchises in Kentucky, Indiana, Ohio and Maryland.
On June 23, McDonald’s investors representing an aggregate $1.29 trillion in assets wrote a letter to the board president expressing their deep concern with child labor law violations and lack of oversight by the board. Among the signatories was Mullissa Willette, president of SEIU 521 and an estate administrator with Santa Clara County who signed in her capacity as a board member of CalPERS.
The letter states McDonald’s has a child labor problem and urges the board to adopt a zero-tolerance policy on the use of child labor, provide oversight, a third-party risk assessment of all McDonald’s restaurants and franchisees to be released publicly, and ongoing monitoring and updates.
Child labor increased as employers looked to child workers as a cheap way to make up for the labor shortages after the pandemic.
“We’re seeing more child labor because, instead of responding to the labor shortages by making it more attractive to work at these businesses, owners found that it was cheaper to make it easier for children to work,” said Skip Mark, a political scientist at the University of Rhode Island.
After the pandemic, union organizing campaigns and advocacy for better wages and working conditions also increased.
“More kids in the workforce will undermine efforts to improve working conditions and wages for adults,” Mark said. “We know that one of the best ways to reduce the overall number of child workers is to strengthen labor unions. If labor laws are looser, and more children are in the workforce, it’s going to make it harder to organize and weaken attempts at collective organizing.”
Research indicates children who work long hours are more likely than their counterparts to drop out of high school. Johmara Romero, a 17-year-old Popeye’s cashier in Oakland, said her manager kept her past 10 p.m. on school nights.
“It impacted me a lot,” Romero said. “I started falling behind. I wouldn’t be able to get enough sleep. I would get frustrated. I don’t like falling behind in school. I would wonder if I would graduate because of my grades.”
Mark fears that child labor will normalize the idea that it’s okay to “just start working from an early age, because there’s no point in going to school.” The only education a child will gain from working long hours in the restaurant industry is how exploitation feels.
Employers are lobbying state legislatures to change child labor laws. In April, More Perfect Union reported that the National Restaurant Association had “spearheaded” the introduction of a bill in the Iowa Legislature to make it easier for 14-year-olds to work longer hours and in more hazardous conditions in restaurants and businesses like industrial laundry facilities.
In March, Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders signed a law eliminating age requirements for child labor in the state. Critics said the requirement was an essential protection for youth workers, especially undocumented youths and unaccompanied minors, who are vulnerable to exploitation.
Lawmakers in Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, Ohio and South Dakota are considering bills that would loosen child labor laws. In 2022, New Hampshire passed a law extending children’s work hours and allowing 14-year-olds to bus tables in restaurants that serve alcohol.
In a March New York Times op-ed, Terri Gerstein, a fellow at the Center for Labor and a Just Economy at Harvard Law School, said the solution to the labor shortage is higher wages and safer workplaces.
“What we don’t need—and it’s outrageous we’re even discussing it—is more oppressive child labor,” he said. He recommends cities and states form task forces and work with labor agencies to aggressively enforce child labor laws and do what New York Times reporter Hannah Dreier did: request information from the federal government about where migrant children live and stake out sites where they may be working.
We must provide resources to labor agencies to enforce existing child labor laws and not weaken laws that protect children from exploitation.
San José Spotlight columnist Ruth Silver Taube is supervising attorney of the Workers’ Rights Clinic at the Katharine & George Alexander Community Law Center, supervising attorney of the Santa Clara County’s Office of Labor Standards Enforcement Legal Advice Line and a member of Santa Clara County’s Fair Workplace Collaborative. Her columns appear every second Thursday of the month. Contact her at [email protected].