“It’s a disgrace,” former President Donald Trump said, “that child labor violations have more than doubled since 2021. When I was president, violations averaged 2,594 per year. Under Biden, they average 4,162 per year. What sort of country allows this to happen? We’re talking about children!”
The foregoing is made up. Trump never spoke these words and probably never will. That isn’t because the ever-worsening epidemic of child labor violations is what the forty-fifth president likes to call fake news. It’s all too real. Rather, it’s because, as I’ve noted before, the GOP has positioned itself bizarrely as the party of child labor.
Labor Department statistics released last week show that federal fines for violating child labor laws have zoomed upward from $3,579,571 during Trump’s last year in office to more than $8 million in the fiscal year that ended September 30. New York Times reporter Hannah Dreier, who in 2019 won a Pulitzer for Pro Publica writing about the teenage gang MS-13, deserves a second one next year for her shocking Times stories (in collaboration with other Times reporters) documenting how a tight labor market and a rise in the number of unaccompanied minors crossing the southern border greatly increased the number of underage workers toiling away at dangerous jobs, working overnight shifts, and in many instances, doing both, in violation of federal law.
One particularly wrenching story Dreier published last month in the Times Magazine related the story of a 14-year-old Guatemalan immigrant named Marcos Cux who, working the night shift in a Purdue chicken slaughterhouse on Virginia’s Eastern Shore, got his left arm mutilated in machinery. The slaughterhouse notified Virginia’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration, as required by law, and the agency assigned the case to a compliance officer.* The compliance officer invited the slaughterhouse to do a self-inspection. The case was then closed with no citations. Crucially, the slaughterhouse never told the compliance officer Cux’s age, and apparently, the compliance officer never asked. By the end of the story, Cux was back working there. Only after the Times story was published did the Labor Department initiate a real investigation.
The problem didn’t begin with Biden; the increase in violations started under Trump—who, not incidentally, tried unsuccessfully to kill a Labor Department regulation barring 16- and 17-year-olds from operating patient-lifting devices. Trump pondered other child labor rollbacks as well. That’s why Republicans aren’t making much of a stink. For a decade after the Great Recession, funding was essentially flat for the Wage and Hour Division and the Office of the Solicitor, the two Labor Department agencies that enforce child labor laws. These departments have seen modest funding increases under Biden, but Congress cut about $100 million from their combined budget request in the fiscal year just ended.
In mid-September, Representative Dan Kildee, Democrat of Michigan, wrote then–House Speaker Kevin McCarthy and other congressional leaders urging them to pass Biden’s supplemental funding request adding $100 million to enforce child labor laws. The letter was co-signed by 36 members of a House Child Labor Prevention Task Force that Kildee created in July with Hilary Scholten, Democrat of Michigan. How many Republicans signed the letter? The same number as joined the Child Labor Prevention Task Force: zero. With the exceptions of South Carolina’s Representative Nancy Mace and Indiana Senator Todd Young, no Republican has agreed to co-sponsor any of the many bills Democrats introduced this year to crack down on child labor. And given Mace’s hard-right turn in recent weeks (with an eye, according to Jake Lahut and Sam Brodey of The Daily Beast, of becoming Trump’s vice presidential pick), it seems doubtful she would co-sponsor any such bill were it to cross her desk today.
Rather than move to crack down on child labor, Michael Sainato reported last week in The Guardian, the GOP is busy introducing bills to loosen child labor regulations. No fewer than 16 states have introduced such laws in the past two years at the instigation of the Foundation for Government Accountability, a right-wing, Koch-funded think tank based in Naples, Florida. Nine of these bills were signed into law in Michigan, Iowa, Tennessee, Arkansas, New Hampshire, and New Jersey. (Michigan passed three such laws, and Iowa passed two.)
Now pro–child labor bills are getting introduced in Congress. Representative Dusty Johnson of South Dakota, a Republican, introduced the “Teenagers Earning Everyday Necessary Skills Act,” co-sponsored by Republican Representatives Troy Nehls of Texas, Matt Rosendale of Montana, and Tracey Mann of Kansas. The bill would expand allowable working hours for teenagers aged 14 and 15 from 18 hours per week to 24 hours per week and would let them work until 9 p.m. during the school year. Currently, they may work only until 7 p.m. during the school year. Meanwhile, Senator James Risch of Idaho introduced the Future Logging Careers Act, co-sponsored by Republican Senators Mike Crapo of Idaho, Susan Collins of Maine, Tim Scott of South Carolina, and John Cornyn of Texas, and also by Maine independent Angus King. This bill would reduce protections for children in logging families to allow 16- and 17-year-olds to participate in logging work.
“The legislation simply mirrors the same fair labor laws that already apply to farming families,” Scott Dane, director of the American Loggers Council, wrote in a letter last April to The Washington Post. That’s hardly reassuring. More than half of all work-related deaths for children occur on farms, according to a 2018 report by the Government Accountability Office.
Some Republicans have proposed that Congress get rid of child labor laws altogether. In 2011, Utah Senator Mike Lee called federal child labor laws unconstitutional, citing a Supreme Court decision from 1918, Hammer v. Dagenhardt, that said only states could regulate child labor. “This may sound harsh,” Lee said, “but it was designed to be that way.” Lee then explained: “Now, we got rid of child labor, notwithstanding this case. So the entire world did not implode as a result of that ruling.”
What Lee left out was that we got rid of child labor through the passage of the federal Fair Labor Standards Act in 1938—a law that would have been unconstitutional under the old Hammer standard for which Lee showed such affection. When, inevitably, the FLSA was challenged in court, the Supreme Court, in United States. v. Darby (1941), chucked the Hammer standard. This was part of the high court’s historic shift to grant the New Deal more leeway, starting with 1937’s National Labor Relations Board v. Jones & Laughlin Steel Corporation, which expanded the Supreme Court’s view of federal regulatory powers under the Constitution’s commerce clause.
To omit when explaining how child labor protections came into being the FLSA, U.S. v. Darby, and National Labor Relations Board v. Jones is a little like leaving out from your explanation for why Americans freed enslaved Black people the Civil War, the Emancipation Proclamation, and the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments.
In 2011, Lee’s position was understood, even within the Republican Party, to be kind of nuts. What a difference a dozen years make. Now congressional Republicans are so hooked on child labor they can’t bring themselves to challenge Biden on an authentic political vulnerability. It would get in the way of the larger goal of repealing the New Deal.
* This article originally misstated which government agency the Purdue slaughterhouse notified of the accident.