Texas’ College DEI Ban Is the Latest to ‘Turn Back the Clock on Racial Equality’

Texas’ ultimatum that its public colleges and universities either ban diversity, equity, and inclusion — or DEI — efforts or lose state funding has Black educators such as Dwonna Goldstone, the director of the African American studies program at Texas State University, on edge. Though the law goes into effect six months from now, she […]

The post Texas’ College DEI Ban Is the Latest to ‘Turn Back the Clock on Racial Equality’ appeared first on Capital B.

At Peoples Academy, allegations of ‘systemic’ racist bullying

Complaints of racist bullying at Peoples Academy in Morrisville spilled into public view last week, when a parent spoke at a school board meeting of the alleged abuse her child had endured. File photo

Students of color at Peoples Academy and Peoples Academy Middle Level in Morristown have endured longstanding racist harassment and bullying, parents say. 

A group of families has been in touch with district officials in the past weeks over multiple incidents at the school, according to parents and administrators. But the allegations were made public at a Wednesday meeting of the Lamoille South Unified Union school board, where a parent said her children have experienced “profound systemic racism” at the schools. 

“Our BIPOC community of students are missing not days, not just weeks, but (sometimes) collectively over a month of school, due to anxiety, fear, and a feeling of (being) unsafe in the building,” said Cassie Baronette, the mother of three students of color at Peoples Academy and Peoples Academy Middle Level. 

Baronette declined to speak in detail about specific incidents, citing her children’s privacy, but said they had been targeted by “overt and horrifying racism.”

It’s not clear exactly how many families have experienced similar incidents. In correspondence shared with VTDigger, Lamoille South Superintendent Ryan Heraty mentioned meeting with at least six families to discuss concerns about racist incidents. 

Baronette declined to be interviewed on the record. VTDigger spoke with three other people who said their children or relatives have had similar experiences at the school, either during the current school year or in the past. 

“It’s been very bad,” said Carol Rogers, whose child attends sixth grade at Peoples Academy Middle Level. 

Her son has experienced verbal abuse, racial slurs, and even physical violence at the school and on the bus, Rogers said. He has missed months’ worth of academic material, Rogers said, because he often dreads going to class in the morning. 

“I’ve heard about it in other states, but I really never thought that it would be this bad in Vermont,” Rogers said. 

Amy Gates, whose daughter graduated from Peoples Academy four years ago, echoed those concerns. Her daughter also experienced racism at the school, she said, but she acknowledged she did not know the specific details.

“Four years later, she still can’t talk about some of the things that happened there,” Gates told school board members last week.  

At the board meeting, parents asked for more targeted district policies — and more robust enforcement — to prevent racist abuse at school. 

“Racial harm is being reinforced and perpetuated by our administration, because there is no clear separate policy for dealing with this specific type of abuse,” Baronette told school board members. “Your bullying, hazing and harassment policy does not adequately address this.”

Peoples Academy serves students in grades 9-12, and is physically connected to Peoples Academy Middle Level, which operates grades 5-8.

In an interview, Heraty, the Lamoille South superintendent, acknowledged “that there are situations that are happening in our district, specifically at that one school — Peoples Academy Middle Level — that aren’t OK, that we need to be talking about openly,” he said. 

The district has organized equity initiatives since 2020, when officials commissioned a report on the experiences of students of color, LGBTQ+ students, and students with disabilities.

That report, released in 2021, drove home the fact that some students in the district felt “a lack of safety, both social-emotional safety and physical safety.” Racist harassment often went unnoticed or was chalked up to “misunderstandings,” the report read, leaving students of color feeling they had little recourse to respond.

“It is increasingly clear that there is direct harm being caused to students with historically marginalized identities while attending schools in (the district),” the report said. 

In the wake of that report, the district formed an “equity subcommittee” that meets monthly. This year, Heraty said, the committee has focused on hazing, harassment and bullying in middle school. 

But changing the school’s policies is easier said than done, he said. In Vermont, school policies on harassment and bullying are usually, if not always, based closely on model policies released by the Vermont School Boards Association.

Those policies are “written by attorneys very carefully to adhere to the legislation that was approved by the state,” Heraty said. “So I think for us to change or revise those policies is very difficult.”

At the meeting Wednesday, the chair of the Lamoille South school board, David Bickford, thanked parents for bringing the concerns to the district. 

The board would discuss the district’s equity initiatives “to see if the kinds of safeguards that you’re asking about and asking for are incorporated in them,” he said. “And we will review them in light of this conversation.”

Read the story on VTDigger here: At Peoples Academy, allegations of ‘systemic’ racist bullying.

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California inmates depended on community colleges. What happens when their prisons close?

As California closes three more prisons and downsizes six others, some prisoners aren’t ready to go. They are worried about the future of their education. 

For more than 1,500 prisoners who attend college in these closing facilities, closures mean they could transfer to a new prison where the courses may not line up, leaving some students a few credits short of a degree. Education can offer tangible, real-world benefits to prisoners: They can earn degrees and gain merit credits that chip off time from a sentence. Research shows that prison education also reduces recidivism.

California’s shrinking prison population — the state had 160,000 prisoners in 2011, down to just 96,000 as of May 10 — has also created an unexpected problem for the state’s community college system, which has developed special programs to help prisoners earn degrees. Palo Verde Community College in Blythe, for example, draws almost half of its students from the nearby prison. 

As the prisons close down, at least three community colleges stand to lose more than 10 percent of their student enrollment and millions of dollars in state funding, collectively. 

Gov. Gavin Newsom has been interested in closing prisons since at least 2019. Since then, the state has closed one in Tracy and nearly finished closing another Susanville.

Last December, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation said it would close a prison in Blythe and end the contract with a private prison company in California City. The corrections department also said it would close parts of six other prisons throughout the state. 

[READ MORE: When colleges are abortion providers and firefighters]

In a statement to CalMatters, the corrections department said that it is committed to preventing “academic disruption” for students at the closing prisons and pointed to the work of the Rising Scholars Network at the California Community College Chancellor’s Office, which oversees various higher education programs across all of the state’s 34 adult prisons. 

But local community college administrators say communication from the corrections department is limited and that they have few resources to help prisoners  who fall through the cracks.

Learning in D Yard

Former prisoner David Zemp, a self-described nerd, gets wistful when he talks about prison education. 

He spent seven years locked up in the D Yard at the California Correctional Institution in Tehachapi. By the time he was released in 2022, he said the prison unit looked more like a college campus than a prison. 

Prisoners made their own salsa at the nearby garden and covered the white walls with murals: a dinosaur fossil, an astronaut, and at the entrance, the March of Progress in which a monkey evolves into man with a cap and gown. 

“It was falling apart, but the people who were investing in it were in love with it,” he said. He earned five degrees while incarcerated, which ultimately knocked off roughly three years of his twelve-year prison sentence.

Before the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Cerro Coso Community College taught over 35 in-person classes inside the D yard of the Tehachapi prison.

In addition to its murals that covered the walls and gardens outside, the college was also working with the prison to build portable classrooms on-site. 

In December 2022, that all came to a halt. The college learned that the corrections department  planned to close the D yard in Tehachapi this summer as well as the California City Correctional Center, another prison where Cerro Coso also teaches, by next year. 

Dropping out in California prisons

Professors and administrators were in a bind. Almost 20 percent of Cerro Coso’s students were incarcerated at one of the two prisons. At the time, Anna Carlson, the program director for the college’s incarcerated education program, had little information about the timeline for the closures, except a promise from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation that students would be able to stay throughout the spring semester.

“That just didn’t happen,” Carlson said. “Some were able to stay, and some were not.” Her office at Cerro Coso, a trailer that abuts the local school, is at the epicenter of the prison closures, fielding calls and sorting files from students and professors who are frantic or frustrated.

Throughout the spring, professors arrived at the prisons only to find that some of their students were gone. 

Peter Fulks, a professor at Cerro Coso, spoke to over 100 people who are imprisoned and who told him  continuing their education was consistently a top concern. Some men broke into tears because they were so worried about what might happen next, Fulks said. 

Over 400 of Cerro Coso’s incarcerated students left prison before they could finish their semester. Of those students, 126 have been paroled; the rest are scattered across at least 27 different state prisons, according to data from Carlson’s department at Cerro Coso Community College. 

Others dropped out of school even before they were transferred, said Fulks, resulting in an enrollment dip before the spring semester, right as news got out about the prison closures. 

Bureaucratic coordination

The corrections department said in a statement that it is committed to preventing prison transfers during the semester, but that it does happen. The corrections department also said that the special credits awarded for classes — the ones which can give people who are imprisoned years off of their sentence — will transfer to the new prison, too. 

Some students who leave in the middle of a semester strike special agreements with their teachers to finish the rest of the class via mail, but not every professor is willing or able to do that. Unlucky students must withdraw or take an incomplete.

In general, educational options for students vary depending on which prison they are sent to, according to the statement. Some prisons only offer classes via email, known as “correspondence-based” courses; others have partnerships akin to Cerro Coso’s model and focus on in-person instruction.

The statement said it is up to the community colleges, with the state’s help “if needed,” to ensure the students’ credits transfer.

While the corrections department later clarified that it tracks where it moves each prisoner, administrators at two community colleges told CalMatters that they don’t have access to that information and said there’s no coordinated system among community colleges to communicate which students have transferred where. 

Moreover, colleges need the written consent of the student before they can communicate with one another due to privacy laws. 

The California City Correctional Facility just outside of California City in May 10, 2023. This is one of the correctional facilities set to close soon in California. Photo by Larry Valenzuela, CalMatters/CatchLight Local

Correspondence classes push on

Cerro Coso Community College is more vulnerable to the effects of prison closures because its classes are primarily in-person. 

Statewide, most college classes in prison are by mail, where students communicate through letters with a community college professor they have never met.

That’s the case at both Palo Verde College on the Colorado River and Lassen College near Northern Nevada, which also face looming prison closures.  

Palo Verde College expects to lose about 10 percent of its student body — about 520 people — when nearby Chuckawalla Valley State Prison closes in 2025, but President Don Wallace said the college can easily make up the lost enrollment by gaining correspondence-based students from other colleges around the state. 

All told, nearly half of Palo Verde’s current students are incarcerated, a number that has more than doubled since 2016. The vast majority of those students are correspondence-based.

While the college will find other students, Wallace said the transfers will have a “horrific impact” on the current ones, who he worries may never finish their education. “It’s a stop-out point,” he said. “Even among people that are not incarcerated, when they have to change from one college to another or they move from a community college to a four-year university, those are points where people quit.”

Lassen College, whose nearby prison began closing last year, has been able to continue educating about three-quarters of its 200 students at their new prisons via correspondence, said Colleen Baker, interim dean of instruction. She did not respond to questions about the fate of the 50 of students who did not continue their education via correspondence. 

To Fulks at Cerro Coso, who recently defended a dissertation about prison education, the difference in prison between in-person instruction and correspondence-based classes is stark. “Correspondence success rates are extremely low, about 68 percent compared to face-to-face, which was about 81.6 percent,” he said, adding that the performance for correspondence classes may be even lower since some of the remote classes he studied had professors stop by occasionally. 

But for colleges, who receive state money based in part on the number of students they enroll, correspondence classes bring in a lot more revenue. “Each one of their students counts the same as a face to face. You don’t have to pay for location, materials for students, they limit how much support they provide to students and that money goes in,” he said. 

Millions lost as degrees delay 

Once the prison fully closes, Cerro Coso will lose just over 900 students, more than 10 percent of its total enrollment. The college’s vice president of finance, Chad Houck, said the college did not know how much funding would be lost. Palo Verde and Lassen College will each lose an estimated $1.7 million this academic year, according to an estimate by CalMatters using the state’s funding formula. While Lassen College was able to continue educating most of the prison’s students, it lost nearly 1,800 incarcerated students who were studying at the fire training center adjacent to the prison.

But unlike Lassen and Palo Verde colleges, Cerro Coso Community College will not offer any additional correspondence-based classes as a result of the prison closures, said Houck. He said the “quality is not the same” and that neither students nor faculty prefer it. Instead, the college will focus on recruiting more students from the local prison units that will remain.

As for the incarcerated Cerro Coso students who are leaving, they will need to connect with a new college at the prison where they go next. 

Carlson has few options to help them and typically must wait for the prisoners to contact her office and request a transcript. As of May 11, roughly 60 students from the D Yard in Tehachapi and the California City prison have reached out to her team to request a transcript, and most people reached out before their transfer, at the moment they knew their destination.

Carlson and her colleagues predict those numbers will go up as more people settle into their next prison, but they also know some may never finish their degrees. 

Adam Echelman covers California’s community colleges in partnership with Open Campus, a nonprofit newsroom focused on higher education.

Pondering state reparations for tribes, a council documents history of harms

A Yurok tribe member wearing orange coveralls checks the net they have placed in a large body of water. there are small hills behind them and a cloudy sky.

Reading Time: 6 minutes

It started with a formal apology.

“California Native American peoples suffered violence, discrimination and exploitation sanctioned by state government throughout its history,” California Gov. Gavin Newsom said in a 2019 statement. “We can never undo the wrongs inflicted on the peoples who have lived on this land that we now call California since time immemorial, but we can work together to build bridges, tell the truth about our past and begin to heal deep wounds.”

With that came an executive order to establish the California Truth and Healing Council  for Native Americans “to clarify the record — and provide their historical perspective — on the troubled relationship between tribes and the state.”

The council’s work could set an example for the rest of the country.

There have been similar efforts internationally, in Canada, Australia and New Zealand. In the U.S., the Maine Wabanaki-State Truth and Reconciliation Commission examined harmful events relating to Wabanaki children and the Indian Child Welfare Act. There have also been instances of local governments giving land back to tribes.

But the California council, whose work is now underway, appears to be the first in the U.S. where a state is comprehensively looking to make reparations for the damage caused to its Indigenous communities.

The council is made up of 12 individuals from both federally and state-recognized tribes across California. Council members were nominated by tribes, but ultimately appointed by the state. There are more than 109 federally recognized tribes in California — and dozens more that are only state-recognized — so not every tribe has direct representation.

By 2025, the council must submit a report to the governor’s office that documents the full history of harm caused by the state. It will also make policy recommendations about reparations — which in this case may include land back and other ways to preserve California Native cultures — for past harm and prevention of further damage.

“We wanted to create a mechanism for tribes to be able to drive where the conversation was going,” said Christina Snider, Newsom’s tribal affairs secretary and a member of the Dry Creek Rancheria Band of Pomo Indians.

There have been similar efforts internationally, in Canada, Australia and New Zealand, but the council appears to be the first in the U.S. where a state is comprehensively looking to make reparations for the damage caused to its Indigenous communities. A similar panel was established in Maine in 2012, the Maine Wabanaki-State Truth and Reconciliation Commission, but it explicitly examined harmful events relating to Wabanaki children and the Indian Child Welfare Act. There have also been instances of local governments giving land back to tribes.

“We’re hopeful that giving Native people and tribes the time to think about what they really want from this process, what they want as a meaningful outcome, will be reflected in recommendations that are thoughtful and diverse and take equity into account,” Snider said.

She hopes to call private and federal partners to the table to work on solutions together once the final report is done. It would also fill huge gaps in many non-Indigenous Californians’ understanding of Native peoples’ history in the state, she said.

More than two years into the council’s listening sessions, interviews and research throughout the state, several issues have emerged, Snider said.

“A major theme here has been the idea of California Indian identity,” she said. “California Native people aren’t seeing themselves in the stories that are being told about Native people in general. Then their identity isn’t being translated into policy changes, either.”

The need for elder care, housing and mental health services have also come up frequently, Snider said. But there are also acute generational divides created in many communities by urbanization, boarding schools and other policies that separated Native families.

The council has also heard a lot of feedback around land — something Newsom’s administration is suggesting policies to address. In 2022, the state started providing funding to some tribes to co-manage parts of the coast.

Currently, Snider said, “there’s almost no access to land ownership and no access to places that are spiritually significant and where people have lived since time immemorial.”

Kouslaa Kessler-Mata, a University of San Francisco associate professor and a member of the Truth and Healing Council and the Yak Tityu Tityu Northern Chumash and Yokut tribes, sees important work underway. But the infrequent meetings of the council and shortage of resources make her feel less empowered as a council member.

“I’m concerned about how the structure of the council is set up almost to position us as puppets,” Kessler-Mata said. “We’re not central to the process. We’re just there to help signify that something is happening, which is unfortunate.”

The council was set up through the state’s executive branch, rather than the legislature, where wide support and consensus is needed to pass initiatives. That means it has a more limited budget of only about $450,000 per year through the fiscal year ending in 2025,  an annual amount roughly a third of what the legislature-established California Reparations Task Force for African Americans said it needed this year just for consultants to help with their work. The Truth and Healing Council also has fewer contracted researchers and staffers at the state dedicated to assisting the completion of its report when compared to the Reparations Task Force, Kessler-Mata said.

Kouslaa Kessler-Mata sits in a park on a stone bench. She is wearing a light blue button up shirt and jeans, is looking to the side, and holding a sheet of paper with several lines of text.
Kouslaa Kessler-Mata. (Photo courtesy of Kouslaa Kessler-Mata)

“A budget is a moral document,” Kessler-Mata said. “That absence of funding has serious consequential results in our work. We can’t achieve our objectives in a really thorough way without additional support.”

Snider said that creating the council through the executive branch meant it started faster and had more flexibility in its structure, developed after consultation with tribes. The result is that tribal leaders have more say in the process than they might otherwise, she said.

Some of the most important healing work from the process, Kessler-Mata said, has come through a partnership between the council and the Decolonizing Wealth Project, an Indigenous and Black-led organization that supports reparatory justice initiatives across the country.

In February, the Decolonizing Wealth Project awarded grants to 13 tribes and Indigenous organizations in California to help with initiatives aimed at healing and changing narratives about their history. The grants will help tribes collect oral histories, provide travel stipends for members to go to Truth and Healing Council meetings, fund work documenting impacts around boarding schools and more.

“When we heard this effort was happening in California, we knew it was important to support,” said Carlos Rojas Alvarez, director of executive affairs and strategic initiatives at the Decolonizing Wealth Project.

Alvarez said there has been a push for a federal commission to examine the full impacts of Native American boarding schools. Between 1819 and 1969, hundreds of thousands of Native American children were taken or coerced away from their families and tribes, forced to attend government-sanctioned Indian boarding schools. Among the consequences: loss of language and culture, abuse, trauma and permanent separation of many children from their families. Alvarez said he hopes the California effort will help drive momentum to address the boarding school history and related issues in other states and by the federal government.

The grants also help address a big challenge for the council: California Indians are a diverse group with different histories and needs.

“One Native person’s story in California is not the same as anyone else’s,” Snider said. “Each person has a different story, perspective and idea for what they need to make them whole.”

Some tribes involved in the process aren’t federally recognized, for example. And each tribe is a sovereign political entity. Kessler-Mata said she is one of the few council members who isn’t a tribal leader, which she feels is important because she doesn’t have a stake in any tribe’s enrollment battle or other political issues. Her goal is to stay focused on what the state can do “to advance the rights of individual Indians.”

Another challenge, Kessler-Mata said, is capturing a precise picture of the experience of California Indians. Most data on Native Americans in California is about all Native Americans who live in the state, regardless of whether they are members of a California tribe.

While the council’s final report won’t be finished until 2025, Kessler-Mata has early priorities. She wants to see the state start collecting data on California Indians to measure indicators like homeownership rates, impacts from climate change, educational outcomes and treatment in the criminal justice system. She also says the state needs to provide greater equity in funding for California Indians.

“What we really need is a multi-sector approach for people to understand what has happened and what is happening,” Kessler-Mata said. “The Golden State was created at the cost of someone else. That implicates everyone.”

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The child workers who feed you

If you’ve eaten a burger and fries recently, there’s a chance that the potatoes were picked by middle schoolers, working through the school day in a field in Idaho. The steer that became the beef patty may well have been killed at a slaughterhouse where teenagers work, and the bone saws used to process the meat could easily have been cleaned by a 13-year-old, wearing a bulky hard hat and oversized gloves. It’s also quite possible that the burger was grilled, flipped and assembled by a child working at McDonald’s on a school night, far later than federal law allows.

This sort of child labor—culled from thousands of examples in U.S. Department of Labor investigations—has been mostly illegal in the U.S. since the 1930s, but that hasn’t stopped a surprising number of companies from engaging in it. In February, the department announced that the nation is experiencing a sharp rise in child labor violations across all industries; since 2018, the agency has documented a 69-percent increase in children who were employed illegally.

The vast majority of employers committing this wave of violations have something in common: they grow, package, deliver, cook, sell and serve the nation’s food.

A FERN analysis of investigation data released by the Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division (WHD)—which is tasked with enforcing federal child labor laws—found that more than 75 percent of recent violations were committed by employers in the food industry. The agency uncovered more than 12,000 child labor violations in the nation’s food system—out of 16,000 total violations across all industries—between Jan. 1, 2018 and Nov. 23, 2022, the most recent date for which data were publicly available. Investigators found minors working illegally at vegetable farms in Texas and Florida, at dairy farms in Minnesota and New Hampshire and at poultry plants in Alabama and Mississippi. Children are involved in every step of the food supply chain, working illegally from farm to table.

Restaurants were by far the worst offenders. More than 64 percent of all the violations were committed by food service employers. Culprits ranged from regional pizza chains to high-end restaurants, and certain fast food chains were well represented. McDonald’s franchises, for instance, committed 8.7 percent of the violations in the WHD data. The National Restaurant Association did not respond to multiple requests for comment, and McDonald’s declined to comment for publication.

Supermarkets and other food and beverage stores were well represented, too, responsible for 7.7 percent of the violations. In one particularly egregious example, from 2021, a 16-year-old supermarket worker in Clarksburg, Tennessee, was tasked with cleaning out a meat grinder, even though federal law prohibits employers from having minors clean or operate them. As the boy reached into the machine, the grinder switched on and ripped off half of his arm.

Most jobs that workers under the age of 18 do in this country are not considered child labor. The United Nations’ International Labour Organization defines child labor as work that is mentally or physically dangerous for children, interferes with their schooling or both, and U.S. law largely reflects that definition. For the most part, businesses are prohibited from hiring children younger than 14. Fourteen- and 15-year-olds can only work three hours a day on school days, and they can’t legally work during school hours, or take early morning or night shifts. Children under the age of 18 are barred from operating a range of hazardous machinery, like band saws and meat choppers.

Child labor is notoriously difficult to document, and while these data provide meaningful insight into industries that commit child labor violations, they also provide insight into the limitations of the agency’s investigations. Underfunded and understaffed, WHD is tasked with regulating more than 11 million employers with only about 800 investigators. Because of this, the agency mostly investigates companies it receives complaints about—and in many industries, labor violations are chronically underreported.

Child labor in the food system. FERN / South Bend Design

“What you’re seeing [in this data] is where we go,” a senior Wage and Hour Division official told FERN, referring to the fact that complaints drive the agency’s investigations.

Labor abuses in the restaurant industry frequently go unreported. In a report released by the UCLA Labor Center last year, more than a third of fast food workers surveyed said they’d kept quiet about dangerous conditions in their workplace and other issues, mostly because they were afraid they’d lose their jobs or certain shifts if they complained. And yet, the senior WHD official says, WHD investigators receive far more complaints about food service employers than other types of employers in the food system, such as farmers. “I’m sure a big part of that has to do with workers’ ability to get other jobs,” he says. While food service employers regularly retaliate against employees who speak out about labor violations, workers “could go to the restaurant across the street [for work],” he says. “So they might be more forthcoming to complain.”

The severity of the child labor violations that restaurants commit ranges widely. According to WHD officials, children often work earlier, later and longer hours than they’re supposed to, and in some cases, managers are unaware they’re breaking the law. Other violations are both deliberate and more severe. In 2020, WHD found that Manna Inc., a fast food franchise company, had hired 446 14- and 15-year-olds to work the graveyard shifts at nearly a hundred Wendy’s and Fazoli’s locations across the country. Last December, WHD fined a Chick-fil-A more than $6,000 after discovering it had illegally hired three teenagers, then paid several employees in chicken.

Teenage food service workers are often desperate for work. These are not “teenagers working [to buy] comic books or trading cards,” says Manuel Villanueva, the western regional director for the workers rights’ group Restaurant Opportunities Centers (ROC) United. “I’ve seen people manage to work three jobs just to get by, and then they have to send their kids to work.”

In Villanueva’s experience, abuses are particularly prevalent in the fast food industry, where hiring workers is outsourced to franchisees. “It’s a free-for-all,” he says. Because child workers lack seniority, he adds, they’re sometimes given dangerous jobs that other workers don’t want to do, like disposing of oil and cleaning deep fryers.

Agricultural jobs and certain food processing jobs, like meat and poultry processing, are particularly dangerous for child workers, but WHD also finds them particularly hard to investigate. Many child employees in food processing work night shifts at isolated facilities away from public view, and “that is not an industry that we are typically looking at at two in the morning,” says the senior WHD official. Farmworkers also tend to be physically isolated and routinely face workplace retaliation; many are undocumented, which can make workers all the more reluctant to speak out. Between January 2018 and November 2022, employers in food processing and agriculture collectively accounted for only about 3 percent of the child labor violations that WHD uncovered—but child labor is known to be widespread in both industries.

In February, WHD forced Packers Sanitation Services Inc. (PSSI), one of the country’s largest food safety sanitation service providers, to pay $1.5 million in civil penalties after investigators discovered the company had illegally employed over 100 children to work overnight shifts at 13 meat processing facilities. Teens as young as 13 worked the overnight shift, cleaning brisket saws and head splitters, and several child workers suffered chemical burns on the job. It was indicative of a much larger problem. In February, a New York Times investigation found that migrant child workers are routinely hired, illegally, by food processing companies, where they described feeling sick, exhausted and trapped by circumstances beyond their control.

Child labor also is commonplace in agriculture—though in many cases, it’s legal. Farmers are largely exempt from federal child labor laws, and children as young as 12 can work unlimited hours harvesting crops, provided they have their parents’ consent and they don’t miss school. As a result, hundreds of thousands of children under the age of 18 work on farms across the country. According to Human Rights Watch, children are often hired to work for 10 or more hours a day, five to seven days a week, in violation of the few federal laws that do apply. Agriculture also is the most dangerous work open to children in the United States; over half of all work-related child fatalities happen in agriculture, even though child farmworkers account for less than 5 percent of the country’s child workforce.

According to Edgar Franks, the political director for the farmworker’s union Familias Unidas por la Justicia, child farmworkers are often expected to work as quickly as adult workers, and they’re sometimes disciplined or even fired when they don’t. “There’s even pressure [for them] to go faster than experienced pickers,” he says, “because their bodies aren’t broken down yet.”

When FERN showed its findings to a dozen WHD officials, labor experts and organizers, many of them were unsurprised that child labor violations are so prevalent in the nation’s food system. In many ways, experts said, a confluence of economic trends and political decisions has made the food industry an ideal environment for this kind of exploitation.

David Weil, who served as the head of the Wage and Hour Division under the Obama administration, says the recent “explosion” of child labor violations has been a long time coming—and that he would expect these violations to be more prevalent in food-related industries.

According to Weil, the modern food industry has been shaped by several economic trends. Since the 1980s, major U.S. corporations have increasingly outsourced the hiring of employees to subcontractors and staffing agencies, which insulates them from liability. “The companies where child labor is being used, their first comment is, ‘I’m shocked that there are children working here,’” he says. “But their second comment is, ‘They’re not our employees.’”

At the same time, many employers also have had trouble hiring adult U.S. citizens, who can command better benefits and wages in the current strong job market. This apparent labor shortage has coincided with an immigration and humanitarian crisis. In the last two years, more than 250,000 unaccompanied minors have fled unrest in their home countries and sought refuge in the United States. According to multiple Times’ investigations, government agencies quickly lose track of them, and an increasing number of employers are hiring them illegally.

Farms and Labor

“It’s a little bit of chickens coming home to roost, I hate to say,” says Weil. “It’s the systemic result of all these forces coming together.”

The Department of Labor has launched an interagency task force to crack down on child labor exploitation, vowing to hold all employers accountable, including companies that hire employees through subcontractors. It also urged Congress to increase the fines that guilty employers are forced to pay; the maximum penalty for committing a child labor violation is $15,000, which WHD officials argue is far too low to deter any major corporation.

Weil is encouraged by these initiatives, but without more funding he thinks they’ll be difficult to deliver on. “You cannot adequately [provide] what the U.S. workplace needs in terms of enforcement with the amount of funding that Congress has been giving to these agencies,” he says.

House and Senate members are considering an increase in WHD’s funding and have proposed two bills that would more than triple the fines for child labor violations. In the meantime, state lawmakers across the country are moving in the opposite direction. Last month, Arkansas made it easier for employers to hire 14- and 15-year-olds, one of at least 10 states in the past two years that have introduced or passed legislation weakening child labor laws. “This is less time that they [kids] will be spending on social media, like TikTok and others,” said Republican Ohio State Sen. Jerry Cirino last month, after passing a bill that allows 14- and 15-year-olds to work later on school nights. The legislation is currently in committee.

Some labor experts hope increased unionization in the food industry could help address the problem. In an overwhelming number of child labor cases, “the direct employer is non-union,” says Debbie Berkowitz, who served as chief of staff and senior policy adviser for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) under the Obama Administration. “Unions make sure that this doesn’t happen.”

Unionization rates are still low throughout the food industry, but some organizers are optimistic—particularly about the young employees they work with.

“The kids of color that I work with,” says ROC United’s Manuel Villanueva, “they’re already politically educated. They’re like, no, this needs to change.”

Sonner Kehrt contributed reporting to this article.

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