Labor Secretary Julie Su, then a nominee, speaks during her confirmation hearing in the Senate on April 20. Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post

Child labor violations in the United States soared in the 2022-2023 fiscal year, according to data released by the Labor Department on Thursday, rising to their highest level in nearly two decades.

The agency found 5,792 minors working in violation of child labor laws in the year ending Sept. 30, an 88% increase since 2019, the department announced Thursday.

Experts attribute surging child labor cases in the United States to a variety of factors. The historically tight labor market coming out of pandemic shutdowns has fueled labor shortages across a variety of industries, but especially in lower-paying service-sector jobs, pushing employers to hire more minors; searing inflation has also weighed heavily on households, spurring more young people to seek work. At the same time, hundreds of thousands of unaccompanied minors have arrived in the United States, often seeking work.

The uptick in child labor violations has also coincided with an increased effort by the Biden administration to crack down on employers that violate child labor laws.

Federal labor law prohibits children younger than 14 from working and prohibits all minors from working in industries deemed hazardous by the agency. It also prevents minors under 16 from working past 7 p.m. on school nights and 9 p.m. during the summer.

In February, the Labor Department announced an initiative to use data analysis to launch investigations into work sites where child violations were most likely to occur. The Biden administration also established an interagency task force, involving the departments of Health and Human Services and Agriculture among others, to improve outreach and training to combat child labor abuses.


The Labor Department announced Thursday that it concluded 955 investigations with child labor violations in fiscal 2023, compared with 835 the year before. The Labor Department says it currently has over 800 child labor investigations underway.

“While these enforcement results show we’re holding more employers accountable for exploiting kids, they also show there’s still work to do to prevent children from being exploited in the first place,” according to Jessica Looman, the agency’s wage and hour administrator, which oversees the enforcement of child labor laws.

Penalties levied on employers that violate child labor laws also climbed to $8 million in fiscal 2023, according to the department, an 83% increase compared with the previous year. The maximum civil penalty for employers under current child labor laws is $15,138 per child.

This year lawmakers from both parties have introduced legislation to boost penalties for child labor violations, though these efforts have stalled as companies have lobbied to thwart the efforts.

At the same time, states with Republican-controlled legislatures have been working to relax child labor laws. Since 2021, 10 states have introduced bills that loosen regulations around when and where minors can work. For example, Arkansas passed a bill this year that eliminates age-verification requirements for minors under 16 to work. Iowa, meanwhile, approved a bill this year that extends legal working hours for 14- and 15-year-olds.

The Washington Post reported in May that the Florida-based think tank and lobbying group Foundation for Government Accountability has drafted some of the state laws that have successfully rolled back child workplace protections this year.


This year, Labor Department investigations have found a series of shocking cases with children as young as 13 and 14 working in hazardous occupations, such as meatpacking and manufacturing.

In February, Packers Sanitation Services paid a $1.5 million fine for employing more than 100 minors to clean slaughterhouses – and tools such as bone saws and head-splitters – including those owned by meatpacking giants Tyson, JBS Foods and Cargill.

The Post reported that parents and guardians of children employed by PSSI faced criminal charges related to these cases. The Labor Department also found in September that a Wisconsin sawmill operator illegally employed nine minors to operate hazardous machinery to process lumber, including a 16-year-old who died in July of workplace injuries.

The Labor Department has also issued hundreds of citations this year for child labor violations found at McDonald’s, Dunkin’, Subway and other fast-food companies.

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