North Carolina Law Increases Protections for Underage Workers

New law protects underage workers

Fines will double under bill aimed at shoring up N.C.’s child-labor rules, which are among the nation’s weakest.

By Benjamin Niolet

Posted: Thursday, Jul. 16, 2009

RALEIGH The penalties for child-labor law violations will double under a bill that received final approval Wednesday from the legislature.

Advocates say the new law will make North Carolina, which has some of the nation’s weakest child-labor protections, safer for young workers.

“Workplace safety is important for everybody, but it’s especially important for young workers who have less clout to make sure it’s safe,” said Carol Runyan, who heads UNC Chapel Hill’s Injury Prevention Research Center. “This sends a message that the state is serious about protecting young workers.”

First-time violators would be fined $500 instead of $250 and subsequent violations would draw a $1,000 fine instead of $500.

If an underage worker is injured at a business with serious workplace safety violations, state officials can fine the company $14,000, up from $7,000.

The legislation, approved by a 114-to-1 vote, was prompted by a series of stories in The Charlotte Observer last year that chronicled how thousands of U.S. youths are injured on jobs deemed unsafe for underage workers.

Nery Castañeda, a 17-year-old Greensboro resident, died two years ago after he was required to use a piece of machinery he was not legally old enough to operate. Castañeda was devoured by a pallet shredder, a massive machine that turned damaged pallets into mulch. In a lawsuit, his family contended that Nery was not provided with the proper safety gear, training and supervision.

On a typical day, more than 400 juvenile workers in the United States are injured on the job. But enforcement of child-labor regulations has waned, with U.S. Department of Labor investigations down by nearly half since 2000.

A study of 16- and 17-year-old construction workers in North Carolina, published in 2006 by UNC researchers, found that more than 80 percent did tasks that were clearly prohibited.

“We need to make sure that the workplace is safe,” said Rep. Jennifer Weiss, a Raleigh Democrat and a key sponsor of the bill. “Currently it’s like a slap on the wrist.”

Labor Commissioner Cherie Berry, who has been criticized for her stance on some workplace safety enforcement, said in a statement that the new law should help curb violations.

“I’m supportive of anything that will protect our young workers,” Berry said. “North Carolina has had one youth workplace fatality in the last five years but that is one too many. Hopefully this legislation will remind employers to think twice about what tasks they are asking our young workers to perform.”

The bill is one of three proposals in this year’s General Assembly meant to strengthen enforcement of child labor laws.

A previous bill, signed into law by Gov. Bev Perdue in June, required more reporting and documentation from the Department of Labor to the legislature.

A third proposal that would have funded more investigators and enforcement officers has been set aside this year because of the budget deficit, Weiss said.

The two bills that passed encountered little opposition. A few legislators raised concerns that young workers might be discouraged from working, or that employers might be reluctant to hire them.

Runyan said the new legislation should help protect those who do work.

“Young workers are still learning how to do the job and aren’t sure how to deal with a boss,” she said. “Sometimes they don’t report things out of fear of reprisal. This shows we are taking responsibility for protecting our children.”

The bill now goes to the governor to be signed. It will take effect Dec. 1.