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Teen Worker Killed as States Loosen Child Labor Laws to Boost Workforce

27 Jul, 2023 Liz Carey

mississippi gf0b580785 640

Hattiesburg, MS (WorkersCompensation.com) – As legislators across the country work to loosen child labor laws, and company hire underage foreign workers, three teens have died on the industrial sites they work on.

On July 14, Duvan Tomas Perez, 16, of Guatemala, died after sustaining injuries at the Mar-Jac Poultry plant in Hattiesburg, Miss. Perez worked as part of the sanitation crew for the plant, when he became trapped on a conveyor belt. He died at the scene.

Children under the age of 18 are not legally allowed to work inside the poultry plant. But, the company said, it appears Perez “should not have been hired,” and that his age was misrepresented on his application with an outside staffing agency that hired him to do cleaning.

“These temp agencies don’t have any scruples at all. They don’t have any national reputation to uphold. They’re just trying to sell workers, basically,” Jordan Barab, former deputy assistant secretary of labor at OSHA told HuffPost. “And then the main company claims they had no idea, the temp agency [says it] was ‘fooled by false certifications.’ Well,… this kid did not look 18.”

Mar-Jac said it was saddened by Perez’s death.

“We are devastated at the loss of life and deeply regret that an underage individual was hired without our knowledge. The company is undertaking a thorough audit with the staffing companies to ensure that this kind of error never happens again,” the company said in a statement.

Officials said OSHA and the Labor Department’s Wage and Hour Division are investigating the incident.

Workers at the plant said they heard Perez call for help twice before he died.

The incident marked the second time in two years a plant worker died from injuries sustained in an accident.

In May 2021, a Mar-Jac employee was killed when his sleeve snagged on a machine which resulted in him getting pinned “partially under” it. An OSHA investigation resulted in a $27,306 fine for Mar-Jac. OSHA officials have said the company has a “horrible safety record” and has previously tried to block OSHA inspections looking for safety violations.

Perez’s death comes as the Biden administration is cracking down on companies who use migrant underage labor. Last month, the U.S. Labor Department announced it was investigating incidents of meat packing and product firms hiring underage migrant workers in at least 11 states.

Perez’s death was the third teen employee death in the last six weeks.

Michael Schuls, 16, died on June 29 while he was working at Florence Hardwoods logging company in Florence, Wisc. Schuls was trying to unjam a wood stacking machine when he got pinned under machinery on a conveyor belt. The coroner determined Schuls died of traumatic asphyxiation.

Schuls worked at the sawmill with his father. Even though his father was on site at the time of the incident, Schuls was alone at the time of his death and wasn’t found for another 17 minutes.

In Lee’s Summit, Missouri, another 16-year-old boy died while working at Lee’s Summit Resource Recovery Park landfill. Will Hampton died when he became pinned between a tractor-trailer rig and its trailer.

All three deaths are under investigation by OSHA.

Federal labor laws allow children 16 and older to work in all jobs, except ones that have been declared hazardous by the U.S. Labor Secretary. According to the Department of Labor’s website, jobs in meat and poultry plants, including cleaning, are banned. Minors are also banned from working jobs that use machinery to process wood products, even if supervised by an adult.

OSHA’s Barab blamed the labor shortage for company’s hiring children.

“You have some employers who are basically going after the most vulnerable workers, the workers with the least ability to fight back or question anything. Who could be more vulnerable than (A) children and (B) immigrant children?” Barab said.

Lawmakers in 10 states have proposed weakening child labor laws to expand the workforce.

Among them are Wisconsin, where lawmakers are pushing for lowering the age to serve alcohol in bars and restaurants to 14, while legislators in Minnesota have proposed allowing 16- and 17-year-olds to work in or around construction sites. And in Iowa, legislators passed a bill that would allow children to work more days and longer hours.

According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, an estimate 160,000 children are injured while working annually. Additionally, the number of minors employed in violation of child labor laws has increased by 37 percent in just the last year, officials said.

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    About The Author

    • Liz Carey

      Liz Carey has worked as a writer, reporter and editor for nearly 25 years. First, as an investigative reporter for Gannett and later as the Vice President of a local Chamber of Commerce, Carey has covered everything from local government to the statehouse to the aerospace industry. Her work as a reporter, as well as her work in the community, have led her to become an advocate for the working poor, as well as the small business owner.

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