JACKSON, Miss. -- The death of a 16-year-old in a Mississippi poultry plant earlier this month offered another reminder that children remain vulnerable to exploitation in the workplace in the United States, senior Labor Department officials said Wednesday.
Duvan Perez became the third teenager to die in an industrial accident this summer. Those deaths occurred amid a push by lawmakers in some states to loosen child labor regulations in order to meet growing demands for workers, though none of the deaths occurred in states where new laws have been enacted.
Perez was working on a sanitation crew at Mar-Jac Poultry on July 14 when he became entangled in a conveyor belt he was cleaning, according to records obtained by The Associated Press on Wednesday. Before authorities arrived at the meat processing plant, Perez’s coworkers had tried to extract him from the equipment, which stretched to the plant’s ceiling. Police found the teenager dead, and Forrest County Coroner Butch Benedict said in a text message that Perez died from traumatic asphyxia and blunt force trauma.
In a statement, Mar-Jac Poultry blamed an unnamed staffing company for hiring Perez to work at the plant and said Perez’s paperwork appeared to misrepresent his age.
“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 statement said.
Michael Schuls, 16, died in early July after he became entangled in a wood-stacking machine at the northern Wisconsin sawmill where he worked. Will Hampton, also 16, died in June when he was pinned between a semi-truck and its trailer at a landfill in Lee’s Summit, Missouri.
State and federal child labor laws prohibit minors from working in meat processing plants. The hazards were highlighted over the past year by one of the worst child labor cases in the department’s history. In that case, children as young as 13 were found cleaning dangerous equipment like skull splitters and bone saws in slaughterhouses across the country while working for a Wisconsin-based cleaning contractor. Several of them suffered chemical burns while working overnight shifts and attending school during the day.
Packers Sanitation Services Inc. agreed to pay $1.5 million and reform its hiring practices after investigators found more than 100 children working for the company at meatpacking plants in eight states.
That case and the overall increase in child labor violations in recent years prompted officials to launch a broad effort to investigate such cases more vigorously. Those efforts include training workers from other departments to spot child labor concerns as they work with refugees and other groups while ensuring that the Labor Department is communicating with the Justice Department about potential criminal prosecutions. Labor Department officials discussed the issue generally in a background briefing but declined to comment on specific cases criminal investigators are reviewing.
Nadia Marin-Molina, workers' rights program coordinator at the National Day Laborer Organizing Network, said the Mississippi incident is a microcosm of the dangers faced by workers at similar facilities around the country that rely on low-wage labor.
“This is not the first death at this facility, and it’s also emblematic of conditions at other poultry plants. These conditions are widespread," she said. "You can’t understand or even investigate what happened here without understanding the level of fear that exists in the communities around these plants and among the workers who are there.”
Perez is the third employee in the past three years to be killed on the job at the Hattiesburg plant. Over that period, there was also an amputation at the plant. OSHA previously cited Mar-Jac Poultry in 2020 and 2021 for four safety violations in three separate incidents.
The Labor Department's Wage and Hours Division, which enforces child labor laws, is investigating the employers of all three child workers who died this summer. Officials have said that child labor violations have increased nearly 70% nationwide since 2018.
Senior Labor Department officials on Wednesday touted the results of their expanded enforcement efforts, saying the department has completed 765 child labor investigations and identified 4,474 children employed in violation of federal child labor laws since the current fiscal year began on Oct. 1.
Most of those cases involved routine violations like teens working more hours than allowed rather than children working in dangerous environments like meatpacking plants. However, two teens were also found working in a Minnesota meat processing plant run by Monogram Foods earlier this year.
The number of children flagged for working illegally was up from the 3,876 illegally employed minors that investigators found in the entire 2022 fiscal year. The Labor Department has also increased its use of monetary penalties, fining employers roughly $6.6 million since October, up from nearly $4.4 million in 2022.
Most recently, the department announced Tuesday that it had fined McDonald's franchises in Louisiana and Texas for employing teen workers for longer hours than allowed by law and letting 14- and 15-year-olds operate manual deep fryers and trash compactors. Such work is prohibited for employees under age 16.
More than 700 other child labor investigations are ongoing.
“These are work environments that are unfit for adults, much less for minors,” said Wendy Cervantes, director of immigration and immigrant families at the Center for Law and Social Policy. “Duvan’s tragic story is unfortunately too common, and too many kids like him are continuing to work in inappropriate settings across the country in direct violation of our child labor laws.”
Teen employment rates typically peak in July, according to federal labor statistics, when many students are working summer jobs. A vast majority of child labor violations do not involve hazardous occupations and instead pertain to issues such as the hours that minors are allowed to work, which are more limited during the school year.
Lawmakers in several states have pushed in recent years to let children work in more hazardous occupations and for longer hours. The proposals from mostly Republican authors are intended to address worker shortages and include allowing 14-year-olds to serve alcohol, letting 14- and 15-year-olds work past 9 p.m. during the school year and removing age-verification requirements when hiring children.
Labor Department officials said Wednesday that new laws enacted by states cannot legally violate minimum federal standards.
Goldberg reported from Jackson, Mississippi. Venhuizen reported from Madison, Wisconsin. Associated Press writer Josh Funk contributed from Omaha, Nebraska. ___
Goldberg and Venhuizen are corps members for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.