Child Labor Violations Spark $200,000 Back Pay Award

LaborA federal judge in Salt Lake City ordered Paragon Contractors to pay at least $200,000 as back wages to children who were employed in violation of child labor laws. Some of the children were as young as age 6.

The Labor Department proved that Paragon failed to pay 175 children who participated in a 2012 pecan harvest. Evidence included statements from children who worked from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. as they sorted, hulled and bagged nuts. The children were given little food and few bathroom breaks.

Paragon countered that the children “were glad to get a break from schoolwork to gather nuts for the needy.” Unsurprisingly, given that Paragon had revenues of $4.5 million in 2011, the judge declined to view Paragon as a charitable organization. The judge wrote that Paragon operated behind “a veil of secrecy in southern Utah's desert country” and “profited from the labor of a religious community's children.”

The judge was referring to Paragon’s close relationship with leaders of the Fundamentalist LDS Church along the Utah-Arizona border. The sect was once led by Warren Jeffs, who is now serving a sentence for child abuse. A federal jury recently determined that two border towns controlled by FLDS members violated civil rights laws by discriminating against individuals who did not share the religious beliefs of town leaders.

In one of those towns, Reliance Electric, Inc. was recently fined $400,000 for violating child labor laws. The company allowed a 13-year-old to operate a forklift while another child was tasked with operating a circular saw. Some of the children were not paid at all while others were not paid minimum wage or overtime.

Child Labor Laws

Child labor has been regulated — and in some occupations, prohibited — since 1938, when Congress passed the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). Children were viewed as desirable workers during the nineteenth century because they were easy to manage, did not demand high wages, and were unlikely to form labor unions. The need for reform was sparked by concern that exploited children failed to attend school and suffered from industrial injuries.

Some states, primarily in the North, regulated child labor before Congress passed the FLSA, but other states permitted children to work in a variety of employment, including canneries and textile factories. Dangerous jobs in mines, glass factories, and the agricultural industry were often filled by children.

The FLSA limits the kind of work for which children can be hired. As a general rule, children under the age of 14 can deliver newspapers, do some babysitting, or work for their parents (provided the job is not in manufacturing or other hazardous industries). Most other kinds of employment are prohibited.

Older children have more employment options, although children under the age of 16 can only work a limited number of hours before or after school. Only adults can be employed in certain hazardous occupations.

Recent Child Labor Prosecutions

Child labor violations are not as common as they once were, and they are rarely as blatant as Paragon’s employment of preteens. Government agencies nevertheless step in regularly to enforce child labor laws.

A farm owner in New York recently violated child labor laws by allowing a 15-year-old to operate a skid loader with a hydraulic lift attachment. The child died after being pinned under the equipment. The farmer has been charged with several crimes, including child labor violations.

In Virginia, Crystal Aquatics was recently fined for violating the state’s child labor laws. The pool management company was cited for allowing minors to work more than 18 hours during a school week and more than 40 hours during a non-school week. The minors were also required to work more than 5 hours without being given a meal breaks.

In 2011, the Massachusetts Attorney General learned that a Burger King franchise was violating state law by employing minors to work later than 10:00 p.m. on school nights and later than midnight on weekends. Children also worked more than the daily maximum number of hours allowed by state law. The franchise was fined $50,000.

Other recent child labor violations involve Street’s Seafood Restaurant in Bay Minette, Alabama (fined for allowing children to operate a meat slicer and to work longer hours than the law allows) and a member of the Anchorage Assembly (fined for requiring a child to operate an industrial trash compactor and allowing minors to work outside of the hours permitted by the FLSA).

Lessons Learned

Most child labor laws are easy to understand. As a general rule, a business shouldn’t employ a child who is younger than 14, shouldn’t allow an older child’s job to interfere with school, and shouldn’t employ a child in a hazardous occupation.

Of course, the devil is in the details. Any business (including a family business) that wants to employ a child should seek legal advice. State laws may be more restrictive than the FLSA, and rules governing the employment of minors who are over the age of 16 are not always clear. Getting legal advice before a minor starts working is the best way to stay on the good side of state or federal regulators.

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