Federal officials on Monday said illegal child labor incidences are "unparalleled in recent memory," promising to more closely scrutinize and root out abuses across the United States.
"We are seeing child labor violations all across the country," said a senior administration official in a call with reporters on Tuesday. "This isn't a 19th century problem ... this is happening today."
Federal officials, speaking on background, announced the media call to discuss "new efforts" to combat labor abuses a day after the New York Times published a story revealing widespread child labor exploitation — from a Michigan facility that makes Cheerios to a sawmill in South Dakota.
Last fall, the Labor Department's Wage and Hour Division discovered more than 100 kids illegally employed by Packers Sanitation Services Inc., a Wisconsin-based janitorial service, at slaughterhouses in eight states, including Minnesota. PSSI recently paid a $1.5 million fine in civil penalties for the violations.
On Monday, officials revealed the federal government is investigating more than 600 alleged cases of child labor exploitation — a 69% increase since 2018. Last fiscal year, 835 companies were found operating in violation of childhood employment laws.
As a response, officials laid out an interagency effort — between the Labor Department and Health and Human Services, which oversees care for unaccompanied minors — to interrupt the employment of kids in illegal labor.
Violations of child labor law include not only an increase in allegations that minors are working too many hours or overnights — in ways that interfere with school — but also in positions described by one official as "behind-the-fence," or hazardous under federal law.
"Kids are working in factories, manufacturing, and meat-processing, where we need to be incredibly diligent to make sure no one under 18 is working," said one official.
The New York Times article revealed Hearthside Food Solutions, a contract manufacturer, had employed underage workers at its facilities where it makes and packages name-brand foods for well-known national companies, including General Mills.
In a statement, the Golden Valley-based food maker said it is "actively investigating" the allegations and "will take appropriate action based on our findings."
The company declined to elaborate on when those actions would be taken or what they would be.
"While this did not involve a General Mills owned and operated plant, we expect all of our suppliers to comply with our code of conduct standards and policies, and they are regularly evaluated accordingly."