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Proposed legislation would increase Michigan's penalties for child labor law violations

Interior of the state Capitol's rotunda.
Lester Graham
Michigan Radio

Bills in the Michigan House would toughen punishments for violations of the state's child labor laws. The bills were introduced in August and taken up by committee in October, but their progress stopped before the end of the 2023 legislative session.

The legislation would increase the possible monetary punishment for a first offense 10-fold, from a $500 to a $5,000 fine, plus the possibility of a misdemeanor punishable by a one-year prison sentence. A second offense would carry a $25,000 fine — up from $5,000 — and a felony charge. Further offenses could be punishable by a 5-year felony sentence and a $50,000 fine.

The proposal would also increase the penalty for employers of children who die or are seriously injured at work. A first offense would be up to a five-year felony, a second offense up to 10 years. Any subsequent violations would carry a potential 20-year sentence. The measures would also prohibit retaliation and provide a pathway for seeking punitive damages in court.

Phil Skaggs, a Democratic state representative from East Grand Rapids, introduced the bills and said they are long overdue. “We have not updated these fines, fees and penalties for over 40 years and they are simply no longer acting as a deterrent for bad actors who are trying to exploit our young children,” Skaggs said.

Skaggs said the bill will protect young people. “If there's nothing else that we can do in the state Legislature, over the next couple of months, it ought to be that we can protect children from falling from roofs, having their skulls crushed, having their hands ripped off in machinery.”

The bills were initially introduced in response to a report in the New York Times describing how migrant children were working in manual labor jobs in Michigan and other states.

Elly Jordan is a supervising attorney for the Michigan Immigrant Rights Center. She said she felt encouraged by the bills.

“In particular, we were encouraged to see pieces around retaliation,” Jordan said. “An adult working, maybe even a documented adult who has mixed-status family members, where they fear interaction with somebody that might report them or might put them in a less safe situation.”

“I think Michigan would go from being sort of way in the back, to being a leader if this legislation were adopted,” Jordan said. “Truly addressing the underlying causes and remediating child labor in a way that's consistent with international standards.”

Skaggs emphasized the legislation is intended to address all child labor. “Regardless of whether the child is a citizen or here undocumented, doesn't really matter to me as an ethical question. The ethical question is, we have to protect children,” he said. “For me, it doesn't matter how they got here, these are human beings and they deserve our protection.”

The House is scheduled to reconvene on January 10. Skaggs said he hopes he can get bipartisan support for the bills.

A.J. Jones is a newsroom intern and graduate of the University of Michigan-Dearborn. Sources say he owns a dog named Taffy.
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