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Re-envisioning Criminal Prosecutions for Child Labor Violations Pursuant to the FLSA

Brian L. Owsley*

Associate Professor of Law, UNT Dallas College of Law




In Upton Sinclair’s 1906 novel, The Jungle, the author depicted the horrific working conditions in the meat packing industry at that time.¹ As a result of the uproar over these conditions, Congress enacted the Federal Meat Inspection Act of 1906,² which sought to create a regulatory enforcement scheme for minimum standards within the meat packing industry.³

Today, Americans may expect that children in some countries engage in child labor, but that the problems depicted in The Jungle are no longer an issue in the United States. Such expectations are incorrect. Sadly, the violation of child labor laws is on the rise in the United States with violations increasing by thirty-seven percent between 2021 and 2022. The United States Department of Labor, which investigates violations of child labor laws, reported that over 3,800 children were working for companies in violation of federal labor law in 2022 by over 830 different firms.

In this essay, Section I addresses some current examples of the use of child labor in the United States that violates federal law. In Section II, the essay describes the Fair Labor Standards Act as it relates to child labor law as well as relevant regulations. Finally, in Section III, the essay proposes various solutions to improve the statutory regime and enhance protection of children.

I. American Companies Illegally Use Child Labor

Minors may work legally in some circumstances. However, there are limits to the number of hours as well as the type of work children may do, especially based on age. Historically, children worked in agricultural fields, and while that still occurs, in recent years, children have worked illegally in factories and plants that produce goods.

A. Packers Sanitation Services, Inc.

In August 2022, federal investigators opened an investigation after receiving credible evidence that a number of children, some as young as thirteen, were cleaning slaughterhouses in Grand Island, Nebraska. The Department of Labor conducted interviews with children whose native language was Spanish and many of them were also attending school. The employer, Packers Sanitation Services, Inc., provides food safety sanitation services to about seven hundred food processing plants across the country.The investigation expanded to other facilities that contracted Packers Sanitation Services. These children did the work, which the Department of Labor categorized as hazardous, during the overnight shift.¹⁰

The investigation revealed systemic violations at thirteen different meat packing plants across eight states.¹¹ At least three children suffered injuries such as chemical burns on their skin from exposure to stringent chemicals used to clean the floors of the meat packing plants where the animals were slaughtered.¹² Moreover, they cleaned various saws and other equipment used for processing the meat.¹³

The Department of Labor fined Packers Sanitation Services over $1.5 million for child labor violations based on at least 102 different children.¹⁴ The company paid a fine of $15,138 per child who was illegally working in various factories across eight different states.¹⁵ Some companies ended their contract with the cleaning service based on these revelations.¹⁶

B. Hyundai

Automobile parts companies that supply both Hyundai and Kia employed children as young as twelve years old in their factories.¹⁷ Hyundai has a majority ownership stake in SMART Alabama LLC, which produced parts for Hyundai’s Elantra, Santa Fe, and Sonata models in its Luverne, Alabama plant.¹⁸ At least ten parts suppliers for both Hyundai and Kia used child labor to manufacture in their Alabama facilities.¹⁹ As one former Department of Labor administrator explained, “The ages involved, the danger of what they are being employed to do, it’s a clear violation.”²⁰ These subsidiaries often blamed the hiring on staffing agencies that they utilized.²¹

The Department of Labor filed a civil action against SL Alabama LLC, one of these parts suppliers, alleging that it employed seven minors between the ages of thirteen and sixteen.²² Based on these allegations, the federal labor department fined SL Alabama $30,000 for employing children in oppressive labor.²³ Additionally, the Alabama Department of Labor separately fined the company and a staffing agency $36,000 for state child labor violations.²⁴

C. Hearthside Food Solutions

Many children work in the food industries. Hearthside Food Solutions, located in Grand Rapids, Michigan, supplies popular food snacks and breakfast cereals.²⁵ Children, mostly recent migrants from Central America, work in several Hearthside plants, producing Cheerios and Lucky Charms along with Nature Valley and Chewy granola bars.²⁶ Some of these children dealt with respiratory issues from the spicy dust used in making Flamin’ Hot Cheetos.²⁷

These children would attend high school during the day and work for Hearthside during the overnight shift.²⁸ Of course, this rigorous schedule led to some students terminating their studies so that they could work.²⁹

Hearthside blamed the illegal hiring of children on Forge Industrial Staffing.³⁰ However, some former employees of Forge Industrial Staffing reported that Hearthside supervisors were advised that they were getting young-looking employees whose documentation to work was potentially false.³¹ Moreover, Hearthside used this staffing agency, but did not require it to verify potential employees’ ages via federal databases.³² The Department of Labor continues to investigate these allegations. Moreover, the Michigan Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity opened an investigation into these allegations.³³

II. The Fair Labor Standards Act Addresses Child Labor, Including Oppressive Labor

After years of agitation by people moved by The Jungle and other examples of abuses of child labor, Congress enacted the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 (FLSA) to address workplace conditions, including in the meat packing industry.³⁴ In enacting this statute, Congress created criminal penalties for specific violations:

Any person who willfully violates any of the provisions of section 215 of this title shall upon conviction thereof be subject to a fine of not more than $10,000, or to imprisonment for not more than six months, or both. No person shall be imprisoned under this subsection except for an offense committed after the conviction of such person for a prior offense under this subsection.³⁵

However, these penalties are only a petit offense with a maximum of up to six months and only a $10,000 fine.³⁶ Moreover, Congress mandated that a judge may sentence an individual to any incarceration only if the conviction is a second offense.

In the FLSA, Congress explicitly barred child labor and criminalized such labor.³⁷ The statute authorized the Secretary of Labor to conduct investigations regarding the use of child labor.³⁸ In enacting the child labor provisions, Congress sought to “protect children against harmful labor”³⁹ by setting “a national policy and a national standard of child labor.”⁴⁰ Regarding oppressive child labor, “[n]o employer shall employ any oppressive child labor in commerce or in the production of goods for commerce or in any enterprise engaged in commerce or in the production of goods for commerce.”⁴¹ Finally, employers can be required to obtain proof of employees’ ages so as to avoid hiring children.⁴²

The Department of Labor promulgated various regulations concerning the employment of minors.⁴³ Specifically, there were regulations that barred children ages fourteen or fifteen years from working certain jobs.⁴⁴ Since the enactment of the Fair Labor Standards Act in 1938, children under the age of thirteen are generally restricted in obtaining employment.⁴⁵ No one under the age of sixteen is permitted to work in manufacturing jobs.⁴⁶

Moreover, those regulations control the specific hours such children may legally work.⁴⁷ For example, they cannot work more than three hours on a school day and no more than eight hours on non-school days.⁴⁸ Moreover, they cannot work overnight at all.⁴⁹ These regulations put employers on notice that there are significant restrictions for employing children between the ages of fourteen and fifteen and that they must ensure that any employment adheres to the regulations.⁵⁰

For all minors, the Department of Labor limits work in slaughterhouses and meat packing plants.⁵¹ Similarly, they cannot work in jobs that involving the operation of machines that form, punch, or shear metal.⁵² Finally, these minors are prevented from working in jobs that involve operating bakery machines, which includes cleaning such machines.⁵³

III. Conclusion

The approach to addressing this problem is grounded in holding corporations accountable for their hiring decisions, including hiring through staffing agencies.⁵⁴ With growing reporting and revelations of child labor violations, the Biden administration announced that it would take action to combat the problem.⁵⁵ This announcement came after Packers Sanitation Services agreed to pay a $1.5 million fine and the Department of Labor opened an investigation into Hearthside Food Solutions.⁵⁶ Both state and federal agencies must be more diligent in investigating and punishing actors for such violations.

There was some initial concern that the children employed in these hazardous positions were being trafficked. Some of the children may have emigrated recently to the United States and have no legal status that authorizes them to work in the country. As one child labor inspector noted “many undocumented children are forced into jobs upon arriving in the U.S.”⁵⁷ Immigration reform is necessary to protect minors from employers willing to hire them by providing better, legal alternatives.

The intersection of undocumented individuals working in the United States with child victims of labor violations poses an interesting situation. Indeed, it provides another example where the government is lax in prosecuting employers when they violate pertinent federal criminal statutes. Despite an overwhelming number of prosecutions of individuals who illegally enter⁵⁸ or illegally reenter⁵⁹ the United States, the federal government almost never prosecutes employers or their employees when they hire undocumented individuals.⁶⁰ Similarly, there are few prosecutions of companies for violating child labor laws.

The existing child labor laws are straight-forward and both companies and staffing agencies must apply basic hiring regulations. As one attorney noted, “If the staffing agencies that are providing workers and the companies hiring workers do what they’re supposed to do, that will go a long way in curbing this. There are very specific requirements if you’re going to hire someone.”⁶¹

With a petit offense as the potential criminal charge and only after a previous offense of child labor, the FLSA does not send a message that the federal government cares much about children being employed to do oppressive labor. First, the criminal penalties should be a felony with a maximum penalty for a simple violation of the child labor laws of five years. Additionally, there should be criminal penalties for corporate entities as well as individuals with significant monetary sanctions to provide a deterrent. Moreover, the requirement that there be a previous offense should be removed. Regardless, Packers Sanitation Services or Hearthside Food Solutions with multiple violations at different locations should be covered by existing statutory language.

As one scholar notes, the FLSA has essentially remained unchanged since its enactment.⁶² Congress should amend the FLSA to criminalize the hiring of children in the first instance. Moreover, that offense should be more serious that the petit offense that it currently is by making it a felony. This criminalization should extend to individuals involved in managing the corporations as well as hiring minors and can be based on principles of vicarious liability.⁶³

Moreover, Congress should greatly increase the maximum civil penalty for each violation from the current amount of $15,138.⁶⁴ This violation amount increased from $14,050 on January 13, 2023.⁶⁵ This increase is inadequate to provide a significant financial consequence to using illegal child labor. Thus, the civil penalties should be raised significantly.

Manufacturers and other labor-intensive companies should not be allowed to outsource hiring to third party staffing agencies. This approach excuses such companies from the responsibility of ensuring that their employees can legally work for them. At a minimum, companies should be required to conduct their own independent verification of each employee’s legal work status from workers provided by staffing agencies. Finally, such liability should be based on strict liability for employers when they employ children in violations of the FLSA.⁶⁶

Finally, consumers need to demand better from companies and their suppliers. For example, companies that use suppliers like Packers Sanitation Services and Hearthside Food Solutions should suffer financially. Consumers should protest these companies and boycott products made with illegal child labor.

Implementing these changes will go towards alleviating the child labor problems that the United States currently faces, and thus prevent a return to the world of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle.


*Associate Professor of Law, University of North Texas Dallas College of Law; B.A., University of Notre Dame; J.D., Columbia University School of Law; M.I.A., Columbia University School of International and Public Affairs. The author previously served as a United States Magistrate Judge for the United States District Court for the Southern District of Texas. The author appreciates the research assistance and support of Professor Stewart Caton.

Suggested Citation: Brian Owsley, Re-envisioning Criminal Prosecutions for Child Labor Violations Pursuant to the Fair Labor Standards Act, ACCESSIBLE LAW, Summer 2023, at 1.

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[1] See generally Upton Sinclair, The Jungle (1906).

[2] Pub. L. 59-382, 34 Stat. 669 (1906); Thornton v. Tyson Foods, Inc., 28 F.4th 1016, 1030 (10th Cir. 2022) (Lucero, J., dissenting).

[3] 21 U.S.C. § 602; see also United States v. Stanko, 491 F.3d 408, 416–17 (8th Cir. 2007) (collecting cases); United States v. Mullens, 583 F.2d 134, 139–40 (5th Cir. 1978); Mario’s Butcher Shop and Food Center, Inc. v. Armour and Co., 574 F. Supp. 653, 654–55 (N.D. Ill. 1983) (quoting Pacific Trading Co. v. Wilson & Co., 547 F.2d 367, 370 (7th Cir. 1976)).

[4] Lauren Kaori Gurley, U.S. fines firm $1.5 million for hiring kids to clean meatpacking plants, Wash. Post (Feb. 17, 2023, 6:47 PM EST),; Hannah Dreier, Alone and Exploited, Migrant Children Work Brutal Jobs Across the U.S., N.Y. Times (Feb. 25, 2023),; see also Selling kids: Labor trafficking, Ala. Public Radio (Sept. 2019, 8:00 AM CDT),

[5] Laura Strickler, Biden administration to crack down on child labor, NBC News (Feb. 27, 2023, 3:00 PM CST),; Nandita Bose & Mica Rosenberg, U.S. to crack down on child labor amid massive uptick, Reuters (Feb. 27, 2023, 4:49 PM CST),

[6] Abby Poirier, Local lawyer, staffing agency respond to child labor allegations, Grand Rapids Bus. Journal (Mar. 2, 2023), (Migrant Legal Aid Executive Director Teresa Hendricks explained that, “child labor has shifted from the fields to packing plants and industrial food production. Once children are out of the fields and not as easy to spot, their exploitation is forgotten.”).

[7] Laura Strickler & Julia Ainsley, The federal government is investigating the possible human trafficking of children who cleaned slaughterhouses, NBC News (Jan. 19, 2023, 5:30 AM CST),; Press Release, Court Enters Permanent Injunction Against Food Sanitation Contractor To End Oppressive Child Labor Practices: Requires Hiring Outside Compliance Specialist, U.S. Dept. of Labor, Wage and Hour Div. (Dec. 6, 2022) (available at

[8] Remy Tumin, Labor Department finds 31 children cleaning meatpacking plants, Seattle Times (Nov. 11, 2022, 4:42 PM),; Julianne McShane, Food sanitation company accused of employing at least 31 children on graveyard shifts in slaughterhouses, NBC News (Nov. 11, 2022, 4:48 PM CST),

[9] Kate Gibson, Children illegally hired for graveyard shifts cleaning JBS meat plants, fed says, CBS News (Nov. 11, 2022, 11:56 AM),

[10] Steve Vockrodt, Company that put children to work in meatpacking plants in Kansas and Nebraska pays maximum fine, KCUR (Feb. 17, 2023, 10:30 AM CST),; Michael Levenson, Food Safety Company Employed More Than 100 Children, Labor Officials Say, N.Y. Times (Feb. 17, 2023),

[11] Gurley, supra note 4; Maya Yang, Over 100 children illegally employed by US Slaughterhouse cleaning firm, The Guardian (Feb. 17, 2023, 15:08 EST),

[12] Strickler & Ainsley, supra note 7; Gurley, supra note 4; Yang, supra note 11.

[13] Yang, supra note 11.

[14] Press Release, More Than 100 Children Illegally Employed In Hazardous Jobs, Federal Investigation Finds; Food Sanitation Contractor Pays $1.5M in Penalties, U.S. Dept. of Labor, Wage and Hour Div. (Feb. 17, 2023) (available at

[15] Id.

[16] Christopher Vondracek, PSSI, a meatpacking cleaning firm to lay off Worthington employees after JBS ends its contract, Star Tribune (Dec. 13, 2022, 2:56 PM),

[17] Joshua Schneyer, Mica Rosenberg & Kristina Cooke, Hyundai subsidiary has used child labor at Alabama factory, Reuters (July 22, 2022, 5:48 PM CST),; Mica Rosenberg, Kristina Cooke & Joshua Schneyer, Child workers found throughout Hyundai-Kia supply chain in Alabama, Reuters (Dec. 16, 2022, 1:00 PM GST),

[18] Schneyer et al., supra note 17.

[19] Rosenberg et al., supra note 17; Josh Moon, As child labor scandal grows, Hyundai provides details of a crackdown on suppliers, Ala. Political Reporter (Feb. 14, 2023, 8:04 AM CST),

[20] Rosenberg et al., supra note 17 (quoting David Weil, a former administrator in the Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division).

[21] Poirier, supra note 6; Julie Dunmire, Grand Rapids business accused of violating child labor laws, Fox 17 (Feb. 28, 2023, 6:32 PM),

[22] Press Release, Federal Court Orders Hyundai, Kia Auto Parts Manufacturer To Stop Employing Minors Illegally, End ‘Oppressive’ Child Labor Law Violations, U.S. Dept. of Labor, Wage and Hour Div. (Oct. 11, 2022) (available at; Rosenberg et al., supra note 17.

[23] Rosenberg et al., supra note 17; Evan Mealins, Hyundai to drop two Alabama suppliers facing child labor violations ‘as soon as possible,’ Montgomery Advertiser (Oct. 23, 2022 9:06 PM CT),

[24] Rosenberg et al., supra note 17.

[25] Dreier, supra note 4; Poirier, supra note 6.

[26] Dreier, supra note 4; Riley Beggin & Jordyn Grzelewski, States, feds investigate reports of child labor in west Michigan, Detroit News (Feb. 27, 2023, 6:24 PM ET),

[27] Dreier, supra note 4; Danielle Salisbury, Food processor exposed for illegally employing minors in Grand Rapids, says its [sic] reviewing practices, MLive (Feb. 27, 2023, 12:54 PM),

[28] Dreier, supra note 4; Nate Belt, Union High School principal reacts to one of his students being featured in New York Times migrant child labor investigation, WZZM (Feb. 28, 2023, 6:49 PM EST),

[29] Dreier, supra note 4.

[30] See Poirier, supra note 6.

[31] Dreier, supra note 4.

[32] Salisbury, supra note 27.

[33] Dunmire, supra note 21.

[34] See 29 U.S.C. § 201, et seq.; see also Seymour Moskowitz, Save The Children: The Legal Abandonment of American Youth in the Workplace, 43 Akron L. Rev. 107, 109 (2010).

[35] 29 U.S.C. § 216(a); see also 29 U.S.C. § 215(a)(4) (“After the expiration of one hundred and twenty days from June 25, 1938, it shall be unlawful for any person . . . to violate any of the provisions of section 212 of this title . . . .”).

[36] See generally Brian L. Owsley, Issues Concerning Charges for Driving While Intoxicated in Texas Federal Courts, 42 St. Mary’s L.J. 411, 430-36 (2011) (discussing petit offenses).

[37] See generally 29 U.S.C. § 212.

[38] Id. § 212(b).

[39] Lenroot v. Interstate Bakeries Corp., 55 F. Supp. 234, 236 (W.D. Mo. 1944), aff’d in part, rev’d in part 146 F.2d 325 (8th Cir. 1945).

[40] Lenroot v. Western Union Telegraph Co., 52 F. Supp. 142, 147 (S.D.N.Y. 1943), aff’d 141 F.2d 400 (2d Cir. 1944), rev’d Western Union Telegraph Co. v. Lenroot, 323 U.S. 490 (1945).

[41] 29 U.S.C. § 212(c); accord Halsey v. Administrator, Wage and Hour Div., U.S. Dep’t of Labor, No. 3:06-cv-00205, 2007 WL 4106268, at *3 (D. Alaska Nov. 16, 2007) (unpublished); see also 29 U.S.C. § 203(l) (defining oppressive child labor).

[42] 29 U.S.C. § 212(d).

[43] See Moskowitz, supra note 34.

[44] 29 C.F.R. § 570.33; see also Chao v. Vidtape, Inc., 196 F. Supp.2d 281, 295 (E.D.N.Y. 2002) (regulations bar minors from working in jobs involving manufacturing of goods).

[45] 29 C.F.R. § 570.119; see also McLaughlin v. McGee Bros. Co., 681 F. Supp. 1117, 1135 (W.D.N.C. 1988).

[46] 29 C.F.R. § 570.118.

[47] 29 C.F.R. § 570.35; see also Chao, 196 F. Supp.2d at 295; Dole v. Fountain, No. S89-0825, 1990 WL 351811, at *5 (S.D. Miss. Feb. 12, 1990) (unpublished).

[48] 29 C.F.R. § 570.35(a)(4); 29 C.F.R. § 570.35(a)(5); see also Chao, 196 F. Supp.2d at 295.

[49] 29 C.F.R. § 570.35(a)(6).

[50] U.S. Dep’t of Labor v. Mr. Cao’s LLC, No. 22-1165, 2022 WL 16948601, at *5 (D. Kan. Nov. 15, 2022) (unpublished).

[51] 29 C.F.R. § 570.61; see also 29 C.F.R. § 570.120; Donovan v. ECLA of N.H., Inc., 615 F. Supp. 106, 107 (D.N.H. 1984).

[52] 29 C.F.R. § 570.59; see also 29 C.F.R. § 570.120.

[53] 29 C.F.R. § 570.62(a); see also Winchell’s Donut House, Div. of Denny’s, Inc. v. U.S. Dep’t of Labor, 526 F. Supp. 608, 609 (D.D.C. 1980).

[54] Dunmire, supra note 21.

[55] Strickler, supra note 5; Bose & Rosenberg, supra note 5.

[56] Strickler, supra note 5; Bose & Rosenberg, supra note 5.

[57] Selling kids: Labor trafficking, supra note 5; see also Joshua Schneyer, Mica Rosenberg & Kristina Cooke, Teen risked all to flee Guatemala. Her payoff: grueling job in U.S. chicken plant, Reuters (Feb. 7, 2022, 1:00 PM GMT),

[58] 8 U.S.C. § 1325(a).

[59] Id. § 1326(a).

[60] See Brian L. Owsley, Supply and Demand in the Illegal Employment of Undocumented Workers, 71 Cath. L. Rev. 227 (2022) (discussing how prosecutors generally fail to prosecute criminal violations by employers who hired undocumented workers).

[61] Dunmire, supra note 21.

[62] Moskowitz, supra note 34, at 109 (“The FLSA has not been significantly amended since its adoption in 1938. Many youth workers are not covered; penalties for violation of the act are extraordinarily lax.”).

[63] See United States v. Park, 421 U.S. 658 (1975) (holding a CEO criminally liable for wrongdoing by the corporation based on vicarious liability); see also United States v. DeCoster, 828 F.3d 626, 632 (8th Cir. 2016) (affirming three-month sentence for corporate officers who introduced eggs with salmonella into interstate commerce); United States v. Gel Spice Co., 773 F.2d 427, 432, 435 (2d Cir. 1985) (affirming conviction of corporation and company president for rodent infestation of food product).

[64] 29 C.F.R. § 570.140(b)(1).

[65] Federal Civil Penalties Inflation Adjustment Act Annual Adjustments for 2023, 88 F.R. 2210, 2217 (Jan. 13, 2023).

[66] Strict liability is a criminal offense that does not require the defendant to have any intention to engage in criminal conduct but can still be adjudged as guilty. See Rehaif v. United States, 139 S. Ct. 2191, 2212 (2019); Morrisette v. United States, 342 U.S. 246, 254 n.13 (1952).


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