More than 3,800 children were found to be working at U.S. companies last year in violation of federal law, the Labor Department said Monday in announcing a crackdown on child labor.
The new measures, which include the launching of an interagency task force and enhanced tracking of minors who enter the country alone, were announced in the wake of media reports, including by NBC News, on children working grueling jobs in the U.S.
"We see every day the scourge of child labor in this country, and we have a legal and a moral obligation to take every step in our power to prevent it," Labor Secretary Marty Walsh said in a statement.
Since 2018, there has been a 69 percent increase in the number of children employed in violation of labor laws, officials said.
Some 835 companies were founded to be illegally employing minors last year, the Labor Department said, and more than 600 child labor investigations remain ongoing.
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The problem has grown worse as increasing numbers of children fleeing violence and poverty in Latin America have arrived in the U.S. without parents, officials said.
NBC News previously reported that 102 children as young as 13 were found to be working hazardous overnight jobs cleaning slaughterhouses in what the Labor Department called a "corporate-wide failure" by one of the largest food sanitation companies in the country, Packers Sanitation Services Inc.
Some of the children working to clean slaughterhouses in the Midwest who were employed by the company are unaccompanied minor children from Guatemala who came across the Southern border, according to advocates and lawyers.
The Department of Homeland Security's Homeland Security Investigations division continues to investigate whether the children, largely undocumented migrants, were part of a human trafficking scheme, DHS officials said. PSSI is not a target of that investigation and has not been accused of wrongdoing by DHS.
A PSSI spokeswoman told NBC News that it has a "strong corporate commitment to our zero-tolerance policy against employing anyone under the age of 18, and fully shares the DOL's objective of ensuring full compliance at all locations."
Federal officials confirmed Monday that they are investigating Hearthside Food Solutions for possible child labor violations, which was the subject of a New York Times story over the weekend.
A Hearthside spokesman said the company will "work collaboratively with the Department of Labor in their investigation and do our part to continue to abide by all local, state and federal employment laws."
In stepping up its efforts to target companies that use child labor, the Labor Department will use new strategies to launch investigations where child labor violations are most likely to occur. The agency called on Congress to increase the maximum penalty for child labor violations, which is currently $15,000.
"That's not high enough to be a deterrent for major profitable companies," the Labor Department said in a press release.