Lawmakers weigh higher penalties for child labor abuse ⋆
Members of the House Labor Committee on Monday took testimony on bills to further discourage companies from violating child labor laws.
State Reps. Phil Skaggs (D-East Grand Rapids) and Helena Scott (D-Detroit) introduced bills in early September to increase penalties for companies placing young people in unsafe working environments.
“We’re all here for very specific reasons, but I think one of the core reasons we are here is to protect those that can’t protect themselves. And that’s what these bills are about, protecting children from exploitation,” Skaggs said.
Scholten bill would increase fines for child labor violations
Skaggs’ House Bill 4932 would increase financial penalties for child labor law violations, which are generally misdemeanors punishable by up to one year in prison, a fine of up to $500, or both. This bill would raise the maximum fine for an initial violation to $5,000, with a second violation now considered a felony punishable by up to two years in prison, a fine of up to $25,000, or both. A third or subsequent offense would be a felony, punishable by up to five years in prison, a fine of up to $50,000, or both.
The bill would also eliminate separate violations for adult supervision violations, strengthen penalties if minors are killed or suffer great bodily harm while working and limit the circumstances where employers may request deviations from Michigan’s Youth Employment Standards Act.
It would also allow the Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity (LEO) director to impose a $5,000 fine for each violation of the act, with the fines deposited in the state’s general fund. The department could also pursue declaratory judgment on whether method or practice violates youth employment standards, and obtain an injunction against a person who violates or plans to violate the Youth Employment Standards Act.
Scott’s House Bill 4962 would amend the state’s Code of Criminal Procedure to include the changes outlined in House Bill 4932.
During the committee meeting, Skaggs recounted the story of a 17-year-old employed by a Michigan meat processing plant who lost his hand when it was pulled into a meat grinder. When the owner of the plant pleaded guilty to employing the teen, he was sentenced to pay $1,143 in fines and costs.
“One-thousand one-hundred and forty-three dollars for a life-altering lost arm. It is time for us to change this,” Skaggs said.
While the Youth Employment Standards act is strong, the current penalties are not enough to deter bad actors from exploiting children, Skaggs said. Until this year, the only way to learn of potential violations was through a whistle-blower report, Skaggs said. However in the most recent State Budget, lawmakers approved funding for two labor investigators centered on investigating and enforcing child labor laws.
“It’s important for me to note that we should not construe these bills as discouraging teenagers from working,” Skaggs said. “Having a job at a young age can teach important lifelong lessons and help support families. But unethical individuals and unscrupulous companies that break the law and exploit our kids for higher profits have to be held accountable.”
As various industries scramble to find low-wage workers, 11 states have introduced or passed policies weakening child labor laws, including policies to expand working hours for teens, roll back bans on teens working in construction and create exceptions to rules barring teens from working in dangerous industries like roofing and mining.
GOP Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds signed legislation May 26, 2023 loosening some of Iowa’s child labor laws. (Photo by Robin Opsahl/Iowa Capital Dispatch)
“The youth of our state deserve to be put first and this legislation provides them the protection needed to keep them safe while working,” Scott said. “I really urge you to really care about our youth, care about them working in environments that are safe. I think it’s our responsibility as legislators to make sure that they’re protected.”
During the hearing, LEO officials spoke in support of the bills, detailing problems with the state’s current youth labor laws.
Sean Egan, LEO deputy director of labor, explained that while the department works alongside the U.S. Department of Labor to engage and educate large employers that typically hire youths, it still receives 250 to 300 youth labor complaints annually.
“That’s the only way we find out if there’s a problem,” Egan said.
While Michigan is among 36 states that require work permits for youths, the only requirement is that employers have that permit on file, Egan said.
“Even though there are roughly 500,000 students enrolled in ninth through 12th grade, roughly in that working age population for minors, we have no idea where they are, how many are employed, what types of industries they’re in, or any other information about these young where these young workers are going,” Egan said.
In order to make sure companies comply with labor standards, the department needs the tools to do that, Egan said.
I really urge you to really care about our youth, care about them working in environments that are safe. I think it’s our responsibility as legislators to make sure that they’re protected.
– Rep. Helena Scott (D-Detroit)
“We believe the additional civil fine procedure within the division enhances our ability to get that kind of compliance we see in the law regulatory statutes, and it does make sense,” Egan said.
The legislation received support from a number of other organizations that did not speak, including the Michigan Department of Attorney General, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) Michigan, the Michigan AFL-CIO, Michigan Immigrant Rights Center and Oakland Schools.
While the Michigan Home Builders Association opposed the bill, it did not offer written or verbal testimony explaining its opposition.
The committee did not take votes to advance either bill during the hearing.
authored by Kyle Davidson
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