Accusations of child labor law violations increased nearly four-fold in Pennsylvania but the commonwealth’s labor secretary isn’t certain what factors caused the rapid rise.
The Department of Labor & Industry opened 403 investigations into reported infractions since the start of 2023. The total represents a 276% increase above the 107 investigations initiated at the same point last year, according to the department.
"While we can only speculate on the reason for such a surge in child labor cases, this is a concerning trend involving Pennsylvania’s most vulnerable workers,” Secretary Nancy A. Walker said in a press release.
Pennsylvania Child Labor Act violations include children under age 14 working any jobs that don’t have exceptions like farm work, babysitting and delivering newspapers. There are varied restrictions by age and situation as to when a minor can work. For those aged 14 and 15, they can work 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. and up to 18 hours a week when school’s in session; ages 16 and 17, 6 a.m. to midnight, 28 hours maximum. The restrictions ease during vacation periods.
Federal law prohibits anyone under age 17 from driving a vehicle on public roads as part of their job. Operating certain machinery like forklifts or powered meat-processing and baking machines is also illegal for people under age 18.
“I want teens, parents, school employees, co-workers, local law enforcement and the general public to know that L&I investigates all potential violations of the Child Labor Act. I want employers to know that we will hold you accountable if we determine that a violation has occurred,” Walker said.
The trend Walker cites extends beyond Pennsylvania.
The Biden Administration in February launched a joint agency operation, the Interagency Task Force to Combat Child Labor Exploitation, to address rising reports of child labor law violations nationwide.
The U.S. Department of Labor says such reports climbed 69% between 2018 and 2022. Enhanced enforcement by the department’s Wage and Hour Division found 4,474 children were working in violation of federal law between Oct. 1, 2022, and July 20, 2023 — a 44 percent increase. More than $6.6 million in penalties were assessed through the 765 child labor cases.
Violations were discovered in meat-packing, automotive and food and retail industries.
More than 700 child labor investigations remain open within the Wage and Hour Division.
Erin James, communications director, Pennsylvania Department of Labor & Industry, said historically, the most frequent child labor cases occurred in food service and retail. They’re the sectors that generally employ the most teenagers. However, she said there’s been a rise in cases involving junior firefighters, local government work like lifeguard programs and construction trades.
The most common violations have been missed break times, lack of working papers and excessive hours. To date in 2023, Labor & Industry collected $287,425 from 124 entities for violating the state’s Child Labor Act. And, the owner of a roofing company, Samuel Lapp of S&L Roofing, Gutters & Siding of Perry County, was charged criminally for allegedly employing minors aged 12 and 15 for work on second-story roofs in Dauphin County.
“For at least the past 15 years, this is the most child labor cases that L&I has investigated by this point in the calendar. This is also the most we’ve issued in fines ($287,425 from 124 entities) at this point in the calendar year since 2012 when the Child Labor Act was amended to grant L&I authority to order administrative penalties,” James said.
James said increased publicity on the Shapiro Administration’s efforts concerning child labor could be contributing to the increased filing of complaints from the public.
Research by the Economic Policy Institute found legislation, pending or enacted, in at least 10 states proposing to relax child labor standards over the past two years.
The legislation would lift restrictions on hazardous work, for example, if adopted in Iowa and Minnesota. Minors under age 16 who are age-eligible to work no longer have to get a state agency’s permission or have their age verified under an amended law in Arkansas. A bill pending in Ohio seeks to expand the hours during which minors can work. New Jersey approved an extension for summertime hours and also lifted the maximum hours for 14- and 15-year-olds to approach existing federal standards.
“Children of families in poverty, and especially Black, brown, and immigrant youth, stand to suffer the most harm from such changes,” the report found.
In Pennsylvania, the closely divided state House in late June cast a strong vote, 180-23, to advance a bill proposal from state Rep. Regina Young, D-Philadelphia. If adopted into law, penalties for Child Labor Act violations would double from $500 to $1,000 for initial violations and from $1,500 to $3,000 for repeat violations.