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Wisconsin sawmill has agreed to stop hiring children after a 16-year-old died on the job

stacks of lumber under a blue sky
A Wisconsin sawmill operator has agreed to stop hiring people under the age of 18 following a teenager's death on the job.Getty Images
  • A Wisconsin sawmill operator has agreed to stop hiring children after the death of a teenager.

  • Michael Schuls, 16, died of "traumatic asphyxia" after an accident at Florence Hardwoods.

  • "Illegal child labor is a stain on this country," Acting Secretary of Labor Julie Su said.

A Wisconsin sawmill operator has said it will stop employing children after the "devastating" loss of a teenager who died on the job this summer. That pledge came after the US Department of Labor accused the company of risking kids' lives for profit.

In July, 16-year-old Michael Schuls died of "traumatic asphyxia," according to the local coroner's office, two days after he became trapped on a conveyor for freshly cut stacks of lumber while working at Florence Hardwoods, the Green Bay Press-Gazette reported. His funeral was attended by "hundreds" of people, according to a GoFundMe that was set up to support his family.

A report from the Florence County Sheriff's Office, obtained by the Press-Gazette, said Schuls had been left alone on the job and was seen on video trying to "straighten out the wood" on the conveyor, where he became trapped. He was discovered 17 minutes later.

In a statement on Thursday, Seema Nanda, the top lawyer at the US Department of Labor, accused Schuls' employer of negligence. Under federal law, no one under the age of 18 is supposed to be employed in a "hazardous" occupation, which the department explicitly defines to include sawmills.

"Florence Hardwoods risked the life of a child by allowing him to operate dangerous equipment in violation of federal child labor laws, and now family, friends and co-workers are left to grieve," she said.

The statement came following a federal investigation into Florence Hardwoods that found that another three children between the ages of 15 and 16 had been injured on the job since November 2021. The company also employed nine children, some as young as 14, "to illegally operate machinery," including saws for processing lumber.

As part of a September 6 consent order and judgment against the company, Florence Hardwoods has agreed to stop hiring anyone under the age of 18, having already fired those still working there in the immediate aftermath of Schuls' death. The company employs just over 60 people, according to its website.

The company has also agreed to pay $190,696 in civil fines.

"While we did not knowingly or intentionally violate labor laws, we accept the findings and associated penalties," Florence Hardwoods said in a statement provided to Insider. "As part of the settlement, we have made process and operational changes, including the posting of labor laws and agreeing to no longer hire minors to work at our facility," the company said, describing Schuls' death as a "devastating" loss.

Loosening child labor laws

With the US unemployment rate at just 3.8%, its lowest in decades, some employers in "hazardous" fields have struggled to fill open roles, leading them to turn to an illegal source: children.

Earlier this year, an investigation found that one meat processing facility in Wisconsin employed no fewer than 102 children, some as young as 13, and had them working overnight shifts using "caustic chemicals to clean razor-sharp saws," according to the Department of Labor. In July, a 16-year-old was killed at a poultry plant in Mississippi after getting trapped on a conveyor belt at the facility.

The turn toward underage labor appears to be reflected in enforcement statistics. In fiscal year 2022, federal investigators found more than 3,800 minors employed in violation of the law, compared to less than 1,400 in 2013.

Employer complaints about the tight labor market — which has forced businesses to raise wages to attract workers — has led some GOP lawmakers to push for rolling back labor protections for children, primarily in the service sector. In May, a pair of Wisconsin Republicans began circulating a bill that would allow 14-year-olds to serve alcohol; earlier, the state's Republican-led legislature legalized children working as late as 11 p.m.

Some states have also expanded the ability of children to work in hazardous occupations.

In Iowa, Gov. Kim Reynolds in May signed into law a measure that would allow 16- and 17-year-olds to work in some hazardous occupations that are entirely off limits under federal law, provided they are part of an educational or work training program, the Des Moines Register reported.

It "teaches the kids a lot," Reynolds said in defense of the measure, "and if they have the time to do it, and they want to earn some additional money, I don't think we should, you know, discourage that."

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