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Failing Child Labor Laws

The low standards around child labor laws in America are enough to make anyone think they're taking crazy pills. Shockingly, many states and local governments are going backward when it comes to protecting our most vulnerable, particularly in agriculture. That's why we invited Reid Maki, Child Labor Advocacy Director at the National Consumers League and Child Labor Coalition on the podcast. It's a sobering discussion on the state of working kids and immigration failures throughout the country and its heartland. It's also discussion, however, about how change can happen for the betterment of everyone. We are failing our kids and it's high time we make a change. Knowing is the first step.


Intro: Hide your kids. Lock the doors. You're listening to HR's most dangerous podcast. Chad Sowash and Joel Cheesman are here to punch the recruiting industry right where it hurts, complete with breaking news, brash opinion, and loads of snark. Buckle up, boys and girls. It's time for the Chad and Cheese podcast.

Joel Cheesman: Oh, yeah. It's your starting quarterback's favorite podcast, AKA the Chad and Cheese podcast. I am Joel Cheesman, your cohost, joined as always, the Taylor to my Travis, Chad Sowash is in the building, and we are just excited, so welcome Reid Maki.


Joel Cheesman: Child Labor Advocacy Director at the National Consumers League and Child Labor Coalition. I bet that works really well with the girls at the club. Doesn't it?

Reid Maki: They look confused when they hear that.

Joel Cheesman: We look confused, although we always look confused, so don't take it personally. Reid, a lot of our listeners don't know who you are. Give us a Twitter bio of what makes Reid Maki tick.

Reid Maki: Well, I've been working on these issues for about 30 years. I started with a farmworker organization in DC. I went to school in California for a long time, probably longer than I should have, and I'm playing ice hockey at a very advanced age and I like to sail in the Chesapeake Bay and go to movies and hang out with friends.

Joel Cheesman: This is audio. Advanced age could be a lot of different ages. Do you care to share your age?

Reid Maki: I'm 65 years old.

Joel Cheesman: Wow!

Reid Maki: And I'm not..., and I'm not the oldest member of one of my teams, so.

Joel Cheesman: Rocking the ice at 60. Wow.

Chad Sowash: And we're talking about low to no contact. Right?

Joel Cheesman: Are you Canadian? Like what historically did you play in college?

Reid Maki: I grew up in Massachusetts watching Bob, a guy named Bobby Orr play. It is low contact but we have incidental contact that can be pretty violent.

Chad Sowash: No hip checks. No hip checks.

Reid Maki: Exactly.

Joel Cheesman: Is there a doctor onsite just in case there is a hip check?

Reid Maki: Well, we have a lot of professionals on our teams, so there's probably a doctor on a couple of my teams.

Joel Cheesman: Listen to the humble brag. There's some professionals that show up. In their 50s.

Chad Sowash: We gotta keep it tight. We gotta keep it tight at 65. Okay. Okay, Reid. We're gonna dive right into this, my friend. The topic of rolling back child labor laws has come up a lot. Right? So states like Minnesota, Missouri, Ohio, Iowa, Wisconsin, and more are trying to roll back child labor laws, and these state politicians say it's because of labor shortages, which have impacted industries like meat packing and construction. So how did we get here? Can we start at the beginning? Why did we enact child labor laws in the 1930s in the first place? So okay, let's start there.

Reid Maki: Yeah. I think that... You know what? It was an understanding back then that children are special, the phase of their life is developmental and they need nurturing and they need to be educated and learn things. And in the early 1900s, the country had rampant child labor in all kinds of awful spots like coal mines and factories, and kids were working 10, 12 hours a day and getting mangled in equipment and getting killed in coal mines and just all kinds of horrible situations. We were losing like thousands of kids and adults. I think back then, we were losing 5000 workers a year.

Joel Cheesman: The good old days.

Reid Maki: Yeah, and well, then the Fair Labor Standards Act came along and it eliminated most forms of child labor in the US. It has a glaring exemption for kids who work on farms. And that's a big concern for us because we see a lot of migrant children being exploited, kids who are only 12 years old, they're allowed to work on limited hours on farms as long as they're not missing school. So we see kids in the summer working like 80-90 hour weeks, and it's backbreaking labor.

Chad Sowash: Well, how in the hell can you do that and go to school at the same time? Because I go looking back and why we started it to your first point, education. Right? Our kids are our future and we want to be able to educate them to be able to obviously take over one day, not just at the farm, right? To build rockets, to be able to do some really cool shit. So when it comes to education, how can kids work even 40 hours a week, let alone 90, and still be educated?

Reid Maki: Well, yeah. During the school year, we see the migrant kids, they're required to go to school. The truancy laws are pretty good, but sometimes they'll work before they go to school. Sometimes, as soon as school's out, they go back to the fields, putting in pretty long hours. And this is actually a problem that we're quite aware of now because kids have moved into meat packing, which is an illegal form of child labor. And they came out of a DOL investigation earlier this year. The kids were working the night shift in a meat packing plant, cleaning it, and then they were going to school. And of course, they were falling asleep. You would expect that. So we don't wanna see kids sacrificing their future for a few years of income when they're teenagers. And we know they're from desperately poor families and they need money and we're okay with them having a job, a part-time job, but we don't wanna see them working a night shift in a meat packing factory for sure.

Chad Sowash: Well, you're talking about... We're talking about poor families here. Right? You're not gonna see a bunch of rich kids working in meat packing.

Joel Cheesman: Is that code for "immigrants," by the way.

Chad Sowash: I would say somewhat. I would say there's probably a mix, but there are a lot of immigrants, correct.

Reid Maki: Yeah. In the meat packing situation, we're actually seeing a lot of unaccompanied minors who are kids that come over with no close relatives. And there's been a surge in that population in the last four years. And that's one of the reasons why we're seeing all of these stories about child labor in factories and meat processing plants. The kids are completely vulnerable. They are here with maybe a distant relative or a family friend, and they've really got nobody watching closely over them. And they're desperate for money. They've left behind family in Central America or Mexico who are in desperate poverty. They'll take anything basically, and these jobs are illegal and they're horrible for kids. I mean they're not too great for adults. But yeah, it's how they're ending up there. To the point of, yes, the unemployment rate is quite low and there are labor shortages, but we really can't balance a labor shortage on the backs of some of our most vulnerable workers who are teenagers, and especially putting them into dangerous situations. That's just not something we can do as a society.

Chad Sowash: Well, I mean the basic economics around this is, today the average meat packing salary in Iowa is less than $25,000 a year. Why so low? Reuters reported that Tyson Foods, Global Foods, JBS, National Beef Packing Company, and Seaboard Corporation financial statements showed a 120% collective jump in their gross profit since the pandemic and a 500% increase in net income. So these companies recently announced a billion dollars in new dividends and stock buybacks, and on the top of that, these companies paid more than 3 billion to shareholders since the pandemic has actually begun. So these companies have the money to invest in higher wages to draw in more workers and even invest in automation, so why are we even having this conversation?

Reid Maki: Yeah. I think you're absolutely right. If you're having trouble attracting adults to do your work, you have to raise wages, you have to make conditions better and raise wages. It's a pretty simple formula. You don't hire 13-year-olds to work the graveyard shift using caustic chemicals. And by the way, the only way this scandal came out was that one of the kids was in a classroom and a teacher noticed they had chemical burns and said, "What happened?" And then the kids told them. And that teacher didn't do what so many people do, which is nothing. That teacher called USDOL and reported it.

Reid Maki: And that launched an investigation that found basically that this was happening in 13 facilities around the country, in eight states. And kids were getting hurt. There was a recent article in the New York Times, there's been a few exposes in the New York Times about this this year. And they profiled this one kid, Marcos, who when he was 14 got his arm caught in chicken-processing plant equipment, basically almost tore off his arm, and he was bleeding out, they thought. His coworkers looked at him and said, "He's gonna die." They called 911. And when the 911 operator kept asking them, How old is the person who's hurt? They got so flustered, they hung up on 911. Somehow, the kid survived, but he has a useless arm right now with a mangled... With a hand that's in a claw. The arm can't be used. And I mean it just goes to show you what's really at stake in some of these jobs, that there can be like horrific, traumatic accidents.

Joel Cheesman: Yeah. Reid, I wanna preface this by saying it'll be the most important question that I ask you.

Chad Sowash: Oh, God.

Joel Cheesman: Is that Ava Longoria in your LinkedIn profile picture?

Reid Maki: Yes. I was in a... I had the pleasure of being in a press conference with Ava Longoria once, about 12 years ago.

Joel Cheesman: And kudos to you for humbly putting her in your profile picture.

Chad Sowash: Keep that around my friend. Yes.

Joel Cheesman: Yeah. Keep that one around. It's probably an 8 x 10 in your office. Help me understand. So my family is... I have a bunch of farmers in my family. I'm not one of them. And there was a time where this stuff made sense. People had eight to 12 kids, it was free labor. I remember my 13-year-old cousins driving around John Deere tractors that they probably shouldn't have been, but they were. That's why it was legal. And when you said, Agriculture was exempt for some of these laws... But people are having less kids now, it seems like these laws are being bastardized to include immigrants, illegal immigrants, kids that aren't family. Oddly, to me, states are now rolling back age limits on farms. Help me understand politically, commercially why all this is happening or how it's happened.

Reid Maki: So there has been an exemption for children working on their parents' farm, and that goes back to the beginning of time, basically. And that's something that US law, follows. Our work is focused on kids, like migrant kids who are working for wages and these basic exemptions that allow them to work as early as 12. And we actually see kids working before that 'cause there are exemptions on top of exemptions, and there's a thing called the Small Farm Exemption. So even if they're working for wages and it's not their parents' farm, but it's somebody else's farm, if it's a really small farm, then there's no rules that apply. And you can see an eight-year-old or a five-year-old picking berries or... A lot of the work is hand-harvesting fruits and vegetables..., and another loophole is that in the US, if you work, you have to be 18 to do work that we know is hazardous, but on farms, which is actually one of the most dangerous sectors, and it accounts for more than half of the deaths of children, of child workers, even though only about 3% of child workers are children working in agriculture. So that's how dangerous it is, so.

Chad Sowash: Wait a minute, wait a minute. 3% of the overall, and 50% of the injuries and deaths?

Reid Maki: Yes, 50% fatalities are on farms. It's quite... It's really dangerous that you're with a lot of... I mean I just told you that the farm kids are not covered by these protections, but in some ways, they're the most vulnerable because they use the most machinery, and they're the ones who have the most traumatic injuries. But the migrant kids, they use razor-sharp scissors and implements and it's a lot of musculoskeletal issues. And a lot of pesticides. We see a lot of cancer in farmworker families, and the kids don't really know the risks that they're engaged in. We also see kids working on tobacco farms. You're legally allowed to work on a tobacco farm at age 12. You can't buy cigarettes in the US until you're 21. That changed a couple years ago. You have to be 21. But we will put a kid in the field, and the kids get the nicotine residue on their skin. It absorbs. So they wear black plastic garbage bags. They punch a hole for their head and their arms. And that's to try to diminish the amount of nicotine absorbing into their skin. But tobacco states, the main tobacco states like Virginia and Kentucky, Tennessee, North Carolina, they're very hot in the summer. So you have a kid... You have a kid, maybe 12 or 13, wearing a black plastic garbage bag in 100 degree heat. And it's hard, it's very hard work, the plants go over their heads. So yeah, it's just like a... It's kind of a Dickensian world out there for child labor. It's not benign.

Joel Cheesman: And by the way, if you're working at night, going to school all day, sleep deprivation tends to add to the dangers of working in these areas. I'm wondering, Reid, if you had a magic wand, how would you fix this? Would you change the laws? Would you change the tax structure? Would you change immigration? All the above. If you had a magic wand, how would you fix this?

Reid Maki: I know it's very controversial, but I do think immigration reform is probably part of this because the adults are having trouble getting into the country, and the kids, because of immigration rules, have been able to get in. I wouldn't change that. I mean I think that they deserve to have their asylum looked at. But if you need adult workers and Americans won't do some of these jobs, then having a supply of adult workers coming in makes sense. I think we need much better enforcement of the laws 'cause the laws are pretty good for like the factories and the meat packing facilities, but there's only 800 federal inspectors at USDOL. For a country of our size, it comes out to 200,000 workers per inspector. And that's a lot of workplaces. I think it's like 11,000 workplaces per inspector on average.

Joel Cheesman: Wow.

Chad Sowash: So how do we amp that up? How can the United States government amp that up and actually have more people to identify when things are going wrong, as opposed to that very small cohort of enforcement agents?

Reid Maki: Yeah. The main thing is to get an appropriations level that's substantially higher.

Joel Cheesman: Which is really gonna be easy. That'll be easy to do.

Reid Maki: There's no problem in congress right now. Right? But to his credit, Joe Biden has recognized that there's a crisis going on here that needs to be addressed, and so in his supplemental funding request that came out a few weeks ago. Along with some disaster aid for hurricanes and things like that, he included $100 million of additional money for USDOL, enforcement of child labor. Now, that has to get through congress still, so chances are it might not, but it would be a great start. It would be a great start at hiring those additional inspectors. One of the things that they are doing though is... We have a lot of meat inspectors, food inspectors in factories. They are being trained now to look for child labor because there were inspectors that were seeing very young children in these plants and knew they shouldn't be there, but said, "Oh, it's not my job to look at that." And so they did nothing. But now they're being empowered to actually do something, make the calls, bring in the DOL inspectors to deal with it.

Chad Sowash: So being able to amp up and get more eyes. I mean, these are people that are in these facilities anyway, so to be able to give them the opportunity just to identify if there are other problems. Right?

Reid Maki: Yeah. Yeah. It makes total sense. And some of the other things that we really need, we need higher fines.

Chad Sowash: There we go.

Joel Cheesman: Orange jumpsuits. CEO of Tyson Chicken in a jumpsuit. That might fix it.

Chad Sowash: Yeah.


Reid Maki: When the meat packing scandal broke, basic DOL found the supplier of these cleaning crews, that these all-night cleaning crews hired so many children. That company was called PSSI. And they were fined $1.5 million. Now, that company has annual revenue of something like 450 million. So they were fined basically like one day of revenue, which is not enough. It's not enough to really cause much fear. And so the other thing is that... And DOL recognizes this, they realize that they have to hold accountable the companies that benefit. So the companies hire the staffing firms and the staffing firms don't have enough due diligence, and enough to look at the IDs and say, "This is fake," or, "This kid looks 12 and he's saying he's 34." So we need to hold the JBS' and the Tysons and the Purdues accountable. DOL said it will do that moving forward, but when it announced the results of their investigation in February, they didn't do it then. So so far, none of these giant companies have been held accountable, except for reputational damage.

Chad Sowash: Let's talk about the... There are 16-year-old kids that are dying. A boy from Guatemala who was just killed at a job at a slaughterhouse in Mississippi, as reported by the New York Times. Two other 16-year-olds died on the job in the US this year, one while working in a sawmill in Wisconsin, while attempting to unjam a wood-stacking machine, he was pinned up and crushed. Then another 16-year-old died in Missouri while working at a landfill. And pretty much the same thing happened. He was caught between... He was pinned between a tractor trailer and rig itself. So we're actually seeing deaths, but we've got these little-bitty fines and we don't have CEOs in orange jumpsuits. The enforcement agents, they've gotta feel like they're doing nothing every single day other than looking for spare coins in the corporate couches, for goodness sakes. How can we... Do we need to stiffen the laws? Number one. Number two. Is the answer just stripping the states' rights away from this and just putting in a federal mandate? The states can have all the rights that they want, but they have to... They have to at least meet the federal mandate. Do we put a federal mandate out there that makes us not back in the 1930s?

Reid Maki: Yeah. Well, and this is the context. You described it really well. This is the context through which states are trying to weaken the laws.

Chad Sowash: Yes.

Reid Maki: But there's an understanding... I'm not a lawyer, but my understanding is that if there's a protection at the federal level and at the state level and they conflict, whichever is more protective is what is supposed to have weight. And that's getting lost in all of this discussion, as the states are weakening protections and extending the hours that kids can work. That's getting lost because basically they're in violation of the more protective federal law, which is pretty good. The federal law says that kids can't... Except for agriculture, federal law, when it comes to like meat packing, says, "Kids can't do it." When there's a conflict and the federal law's supposed to take weight. But that's not being recognized by the people in the states that are enacting these laws, so there's a lot of confusion for employers. They're gonna think that they can... Like in Iowa, the federal law says that... The federal law says that kids can work three hours on a school night. Well, Iowa has just changed that to six hours on a school night, so every employer in Iowa is gonna think he can do that, but technically, they're in violation of the law and could get a serious fine from USDOL. So there's all kinds of rampant confusion that needs to be cleared up. And I agree with you, we should adhere to the... There should be a general recognition even with the public and business community that we have to adhere to the federal standards.

Chad Sowash: Well, it's interesting 'cause there is a dynamic here. Right? Most of these states, if not all of them, are pretty much conservative-driven, so they're on the Republican side of the house. And Republicans are always looking for smaller government, which is really a code word for "less enforcement." I mean we get to do whatever the hell we want no matter what the laws are. And we're starting to see those rollbacks. I mean it seems like a code for being able to, again, operate within my own means, let alone having to worry about state or federal government.

Reid Maki: It's not universally true. Like New Jersey last year did extend hours for teen workers, and they had a Democratic governor, but for the most part, it has been in conservative states. And it's really concerning. And there was some recent reporting, maybe two months ago in the Washington Post, that found that there is a conservative think tank in Florida behind some of these state laws. They're actually drafting the legislation and handing it off to conservative legislators.

Chad Sowash: Is that AlEC?

Reid Maki: It's not AlEC, but it's called the Foundation of Government Accountability, which sounds like an innocuous name, but it's not an innocuous group. And there's some concern that they're basically trying to undermine labor rights of the most lowest level workers of the bottom tier, including teenage workers. And they have a cadre of like a hundred lobbyists to help them enact these loosening of protections. And I think it's shameful. Apparently, they're financed by a right-wing billionaire, who's a privileged member of society. And they're going to great lengths to weaken protections for people at the bottom.

Chad Sowash: Wouldn't happen to be a Tyson. Would he?

Reid Maki: I don't think so.

Chad Sowash: Okay.

Joel Cheesman: I asked about your magic wand, Reid, and two of the things that I thought you might mention, but you didn't, I want to get your take on them. One is automation, and the other is increasing the minimum wage. What impact would you see having that on this issue?

Reid Maki: Yeah. I think minimum wage is a big thing. One of the problems with agriculture is that the kids who harvest fruits and vegetables work under a system called the piece rate, which is basically the more buckets they fill, the more the family gets paid. And if those kids all got the minimum wage rather than the piece rate, then I think we'd see some of the younger kids... Like I've met nine and 10-year-olds in the field, some of those kids would not be hired if they were... If they were being paid the minimum wage because they're getting paid a subminimum wage. And the piece rate is an inhuman form of work incentive, it's basically...

Joel Cheesman: Slave labor, to some extent.

Reid Maki: Yeah. It's asking people to work at the limits of their capacity for like long periods of time. It doesn't make sense. Yeah. And as far as automation, I do think that that will happen eventually in agriculture. It may take 20 or 30 years, but the attempts to automate fruit and vegetable harvesting have usually fallen short because the fruits and vegetables are so easily bruised, and so you need a robot, a robotic machine, basically, that has incredible delicacy. And they're making advancements all the time. I think that they will get there. In two or three decades, we'll see it pretty much all over the country, I think. But for now we've got all these... We've got hundreds of thousands of kids working with their parents, 12-hour days. It's just not right.

Joel Cheesman: And I want to get your take, this is some news outta California, I think, this week. A new bill signed on will require schools to teach students about child labor, workplace safety, and rights to organize. Thoughts on that? I don't see it happening in Texas, but is this something that may happen? I mean unions are having a moment, dare I say kids could unionize and make changes, or their parents. Where do you see this going?

Reid Maki: Yeah I think this is a good idea because I think that the young people don't have really any... Hardly any knowledge of the workers' struggles in the country over time. I do think where unions exist, we don't tend to see child labor, like a first thing a shop steward would... If he saw a kid working on a processing plant, he would file a grievance, he would blow the whistle. So I do think that unionization could play a pretty nice role in this. And in some of the meat packing, basically what was happening is JBS agreed to unionize some of those cleaning crews, and that's the outcome. That's the outcome we'd wanna see, like higher wages, adult workers. So I do think this is a great idea.

Chad Sowash: So how does that actually have to happen though, Reid? I mean do they have to organize within or is there a body right now, a unionizing body of poultry workers, meat packers, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera, that would actually go into these organizations to be able to push? Because as Joel had said, the unions are getting their mojo back. We've seen so much went from UPS, SAG AFTRA, with UAW. I mean there's a nice push. Right? 75,000 Kaiser Permanente workers walked off the job. That's historic. How do we start to push more for these unions in these different workplaces? How does that happen?

Reid Maki: I mean there's a recognition by... I think JBS realized that their reputation was at stake. They've had a lot of reputational issues in the past and they were looking really, really badly, and so they said like, "This is a way to fix this." I think UFCW, I believe, is talking with them about how to bring about the actual unionization of these workers. I think we just need more pressure. Consumers have to exert more pressure, that these workers need to be paid better and should have access to unions.

Chad Sowash: That's hard.

Joel Cheesman: So a lot of people listening are saying, "This is horrible, this is awful, but what the hell can I do? I'm just one person in my daily life." Reid, you mentioned more consumer pressure, but against who? What industries should people be writing checks? To nonprofits that are fighting this? Should they be writing their congress person? Like what can the average person do listening right now to make a change?

Reid Maki: All of those things? Yeah, I think they... In congress right now, there are at least four bills that would increase child labor fines. And they can write to their member of congress and say, "Hey, I learned about child labor, fines need to be increased. Let's provide more money through appropriations for enforcement agents and let's raise fines." Then their member can then cosponsor those bills. Once they get enough cosponsors, then leadership sees them as viable bills, and then has a chance to pass. So yeah. And I think... I mean if people like to write letters, I think writing a letter to the presidents of Tysons and JBS and Purdue and all of these meatpacking, then... That does seem to be a sector that has been particularly hard-hit. Last year, we saw that they were funding kids and suppliers to Hyundai. I mean Hyundai did seem to take the situation seriously. But yeah, writing letters to corporations and saying, "I'm a consumer, consumer. I buy your product. I'd like to think that you're producing unethically, let's fix this."

Joel Cheesman: Is there any documentation of like what politicians, what members of congress are fighting for this issue? If people do wanna write a check or get behind a candidate, is there something that they can go to for that?

Chad Sowash: Like on your website or... Have you guys published anything?

Reid Maki: We have a fact sheet that lists the bills, and with a click, a link to, where you can see like who introduced the bills. There is a brand new... This is something that hadn't existed before. It's a child labor prevention task force in congress, so it's congressional members. The leadership on that seems to be Dale Kildee in Michigan and Representative Shelton, also from Michigan but there are half a dozen members or so of congress that are on that, on that task force. There are a number of members of congress, especially on like the agriculture side. We've had bills for two decades that haven't really moved, but they could move and they need our... They need the support of the public as well.

Chad Sowash: Yeah. Well, Reed, we appreciate you taking time out of the day to talk to us about this incredibly, incredibly important subject. If you would, if you could, can you tell our listeners where they can find out more about you, about this cause? And then also, how can they connect with you?

Reid Maki: Yeah, so you can visit, which is our website. Learn about the Child Labor Coalition, 35 great groups that come together to fight, to reduce child labor. If somebody wants to send me an email, they can email me at

Joel Cheesman: I'm gonna make a TikTok chat and I'm writing a tweet to Elon Musk, that'll fix this whole thing. It's gonna happen. Reid, thanks for joining us.

Reid Maki: Sure.

Joel Cheesman: Chad, that's another one in the can. I feel smarter, but I wanna jump off a ledge right now. Anyway, another one in the can. Thanks for your time, Reid. And we out.

Chad Sowash: We out.

Outro: Wow. Look at you. You made it through an entire episode of the Chad and Cheese podcast. Oh, maybe you cheated and fast-forwarded to the end. Either way, there's no doubt you wish you had that time back, valuable time you could have used to buy a nutritious meal at Taco Bell, enjoy a pour of your favorite whiskey, or just watch big booty Latinas and bug fights on TikTok. No, you hung out with these two chuckleheads instead. Now go take a shower and wash off all the guilt, but save some soap because you'll be back. Like an awful train wreck, you can't look away. And like Chad's favorite Western, you can't quit them either. We out.


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