When the federal government falls short in its responsibility to protect the nation's working children, advocates look to the states. But in many cases, they don't find much.
Some states' laws governing child labor are vague and difficult to enforce; other states lack resources or commitment to pursue reports of children working illegally.
The variations in state laws can be dizzying. Some are more stringent than federal child-labor laws, others more lenient.
Some state officials acknowledge the shortcomings openly.
"Our enforcement efforts are woefully inadequate,'' said Paul Shirr, a spokesman with the Texas Workforce Commission.
To be sure, some states have made inroads. The New York State Labor Department's Apparel Industry Task Force, for example, conducts regular inspections of urban garment factories to track violations that include child labor. But some states' approaches to enforcement appear either toothless or misdirected.
It toughened its child labor laws in 1991. Six years later, an Associated Press investigation found Florida's enforcement efforts remain almost entirely aimed at teens packing groceries, taking fast-food orders and working after-school jobs -- leaving children picking crops overlooked and vulnerable.
The pattern, also seen at the federal level, is common to many states.
"If we know about it, we investigate it,'' said state child labor coordinator Michelle Collins.
However, a review of records shows the state Department of Labor has investigated only three cases of children working in Florida fields over the past five years. Two involved youngsters killed in citrus groves. The third began when a labor investigator happened upon a van accident involving migrant workers -- including a 15-year-old girl picking tomatoes full-time.
The results: one warning to a labor contractor.
In contrast, the AP interviewed 28 children who worked picking tomatoes, beans, ferns and okra, all in apparent violation of the law, in just the opening weeks of this season's Florida harvest.
--In Georgia, which has a $5.3 billion agricultural industry and no good count of child laborers, state law offers no protection for children who pick and plant crops. Federal law sets limits but allows children younger than 12 to work in the fields under certain circumstances.
To enforce the law, Georgia's Child Labor Division must borrow investigators from another office to check complaints. And it has no power to levy fines.
--In Washington state, the vast majority of state enforcement activity focuses on fast-food restaurants and grocery stores, not on agriculture, state officials acknowledge.
Margarita Prentice, a Democratic state senator who led a 1990 fight to make the state's agricultural child labor law considerably tougher than the federal law, doesn't blame the labor department for the continued existence child labor.
"They are overworked because we, the legislature, don't give them the resources they need,'' she said.
--In Maryland, the state Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation acknowledges that it has done little or no investigating into child labor complaints since the Employment Standards unit was disbanded in 1991 as part of state budget cuts.
During the previous year, 1990, the unit found 172 firms in violation of state child labor laws, involving 488 minors, said department spokeswoman Karen Napolitano. That number dropped to zero with the closing of the unit.
The agency was revived in 1994 -- but with only six employees, compared with 30 three years earlier. If there is a complaint, Ms. Napolitano said, a notice and copy of Maryland's labor law is sent to the business alleged to be in violation of the law.
"We expect a response back, but we don't have any investigation staff,'' she said.
In contrast, New Jersey is among a handful of states that enforce child labor laws more vigorously. There, investigators open more than 100 child labor cases in an average month.
In Texas, where state law allows farm work at any age, and where enforcement of federal law is negligible, even toddlers are out in the fields.
The Texas Workforce Commission, the state agency responsible for enforcing state labor laws, has a $780,000 budget this year with eight investigators and one supervisor to enforce the law. The agency has investigated more than 1,700 cases of child labor this year.
The statewide investigations resulted in fines to about 50 employers.
Not one state fine was levied for children working in agriculture.
Copyright 1998 Associated Press. All rights reserved.
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