WASHINGTON – Today, U.S. Senator Bill Cassidy, M.D. (R-LA), ranking member of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee, demanded accountability from the Department of Labor (DOL) for failing to provide answers on its efforts to combat the rising exploitation of migrant children.
Earlier this year, Cassidy demanded answers from DOL on its work to prevent child labor violations following reports indicating that senior DOL and White House officials repeatedly ignored warnings and downplayed the exploitation of migrant children. DOL failed to adequately answer any of Cassidy’s questions. Instead, DOL provided summaries and copy-and-pasted sections from previous press releases. When pressed for more information, DOL’s Assistant Secretary for Legislation, not Acting Secretary Julie Su, responded more than a month later, but again did not provide sufficient answers to Dr. Cassidy’s questions.
Recent reports have shown a disturbing increase in the exploitation of migrant children for dangerous labor, which has led to serious injuries and death. While DOL did pass along information about migrant child labor to the White House, Biden administration officials told the New York Times that “the reports were not flagged as urgent and did not make clear the scope of the problem.” When asked by the Times, White House Deputy Press Secretary Andrew Bates stated that White House officials had not known of the increase in migrant child labor until the New York Times article in February of 2023, despite official reports from administration personnel regarding the potential exploitation of these children dating back to 2021.
Additionally, the reports found severe operational issues that hampered DOL’s response to child labor violations, stating “[DOL] inspectors in a dozen states said their understaffed offices could barely respond to complaints, much less open original investigations.”
In August, the DOL Office of Inspector General announced it would begin an investigation into the causes of rising child labor law violations and determine whether the efforts of DOL’s Wage and Hour Division to curtail these violations have been sufficient.
“In order to prevent and combat child labor violations moving forward, there needs to be a full accounting of DOL’s mistakes that allowed this illegal activity to proliferate,” wrote Dr. Cassidy. “Your failure to provide detailed responses to questions about communication breakdowns between DOL, HHS, the White House, and other federal agencies, in addition to not providing information on how DOL collects and uses data to prevent child labor violations, suggests that a thoughtful retrospective has not been completed.”
“The opening of a DOL OIG review into the actions that the Department has taken only bolsters this Committee’s justification for demanding a full accounting of past behavior and the articulation of the specific steps DOL plans to take to prevent future tragedies,” continued Dr. Cassidy. “Given the seriousness and tragic nature of this issue, it is incumbent upon the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee to examine the actions DOL is taking to remedy past mistakes and ensure that there is a comprehensive plan going forward to prevent child labor law violations.”
Read full letter here or below.
Acting Secretary Su:
On April 24, 2023, I wrote to you regarding the widespread exploitation of migrant children across the country in direct violation of child labor laws. The letter asked how the Department of Labor (DOL) planned to address this problem under your leadership and requested information regarding the steps DOL is taking to increase its enforcement activities to protect children from predatory employment that could threaten their health, safety, and opportunity to obtain an education. Regrettably, DOL failed to provide detailed responses to my inquiry.
On August 21, 2023, the DOL Office of Inspector General (OIG) announced that it was reviewing the Wage and Hour Division’s (WHD) efforts to curtail child labor law violations, as well as the cause of rising child labor law violations. In response, a DOL spokesperson said that the WHD “is using every tool at its disposal to ensure that children are safe, healthy, and protected from exploitation” and that DOL is “taking a whole-of-government approach to forge new partnerships, employ innovative tactics, ramp up enforcement, and work with agencies across the federal government to root out child labor violations.” However, it is clear that DOL’s efforts in this area have been wholly insufficient and that the Department has not acted in the way that this crisis demands.
In fact, as recently as June, you continued to push a narrative that DOL was not negligent in its enforcement duties to ensure that children are not employed in violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938. During a hearing before the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, you were asked about two recent New York Times articles, published in February and April, which reported that the White House and federal agencies were repeatedly alerted to signs of children at risk yet ignored or missed these alerts., You responded, “I don’t believe the story said that the Department of Labor was not doing what we need to do. In fact, I believe the stories came out because the Department of Labor was doing our job.” However, contrary to your characterization, the New York Times articles faulted DOL, stating that “[DOL] is supposed to find and punish child labor violations, but inspectors in a dozen states said their understaffed offices could barely respond to complaints, much less open original investigations.” It is perplexing why you believe that DOL “was doing [its] job” when child labor violations are up 37 percent in the previous year alone.
There is an ongoing concern that DOL has repeatedly announced new efforts to combat child labor violations only in response to news articles, rather than “doing [its] job” and proactively combatting these violations, as you suggest. DOL entered into a Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) with the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) in March to deepen coordination and information-sharing. While this is a step in the right direction, it is also evidence that the Department knew that there were deficiencies in its previous handling of child labor violations and breakdowns in interagency coordination prior to the publishing of the New York Times article in February. Similarly, the Department recently announced an investigation into Perdue and Tyson Foods only after a New York Times Magazine article reported numerous examples of minors working at their facilities in horrific conditions.
While it is encouraging that DOL announced new actions this summer to hold companies accountable for violating federal child labor laws and published new materials to help prevent child labor violations, it is unclear how these actions will stop this crisis since the Department has been unable or unwilling to evaluate and identify the problems that contributed to the severity of this situation. Broad pronouncements of “further[ing] collaboration” and “improv[ing] information-sharing” among agencies are not sufficient at a time when DOL has still not acknowledged the inexplicable lapse in communication between the Department and the White House that resulted in this tragic issue not getting the attention that it needed for far too long.
In order to prevent and combat child labor violations moving forward, there needs to be a full accounting of DOL’s mistakes that allowed this illegal activity to proliferate. Your failure to provide detailed responses to questions about communication breakdowns between DOL, HHS, the White House, and other federal agencies, in addition to not providing information on how DOL collects and uses data to prevent child labor violations, suggests that a thoughtful retrospective has not been completed.
For example, in September 2022, the HHS OIG issued a report finding that during the surge in unaccompanied children at the southern border in 2021, the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) “removed several safeguards from [its] process for screening potential sponsors” and that “the removal of these safeguards may have also increased children’s risk of release to unsafe sponsors.” It is not clear that DOL knew about this report, and if it did, whether the Department took subsequent steps to focus child labor prevention and enforcement tools on geographic areas with a high number of unaccompanied children. Given that many of the children who are exploited are those released to sponsors by ORR, it is essential that DOL works in coordination with ORR to identify areas where migrant children are especially vulnerable and use all of the tools at its disposal to identify warning signs that may uncover child labor violations.
Given the seriousness and tragic nature of this issue, it is incumbent upon the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee to examine the actions DOL is taking to remedy past mistakes and ensure that there is a comprehensive plan going forward to prevent child labor law violations. As Acting Secretary, you have an obligation to respond to such oversight requests in a timely and thorough manner. The opening of a DOL OIG review into the actions that the Department has taken only bolsters this Committee’s justification for demanding a full accounting of past behavior and the articulation of the specific steps DOL plans to take to prevent future tragedies. Therefore, I ask that you answer the following questions, on a question-by-question basis, by November 2, 2023:
Thank you for your prompt attention to this important matter.