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‘It should never have happened’: death of boy, 16, at sawmill highlights rise of child labour in US

dIn late June, Jim Schuls and his 16-year-old son, Michael, woke up at 4am for their usual drive from their apartment in Florence, Wisconsin to begin work at 5am at a sawmill. Father and son made this journey together five times a week in the summer, when Michael worked longer hours than he did in term time. His two older brothers had also worked at the same mill when they were about his age.

Their day at Florence Hardwoods – one of the largest employers in the town with a population of about 2,000 – began as normal. Jim operated a forklift outside while Michael worked alone inside the mill. Jim says he never worried because he believed “young kids were stacking lumber”, not operating dangerous machines.

According to a Florence County sheriff’s office report, when the conveyor machine became jammed Michael stepped on to it to try to straighten the wood, but he had not pressed a safety button to turn it off. The conveyor started to move and he became caught in the machine. The teenager was trapped for 17 minutes before a supervisor, who had been operating a forklift outside, discovered him unconscious.

After freeing him, sawmill employees administered CPR and a sheriff’s deputy who responded to the incident used a defibrillator before paramedics transported Michael to hospital. However, Michael died two days after the incident. The Florence County coroner, Jeff Rickaby, told the Associated Press that an autopsy identified the cause of death as traumatic asphyxiation.

Michael’s death has had a seismic effect in Florence, the kind of town where “one person is saying something at one end of town, while a person on the other end is hearing about it before they even finish talking”, says Schuls. “Our small community is in absolute shock,” the Schuls family said on a GoFundMe page set up after Michael’s death.

It has also happened at a time of serious national debate across the US about the role of children in the workforce. Child labour violations across the US are soaring. Earlier this year, the Labor Department reported a 69% increase in children being employed illegally since 2018. Meanwhile, a concerted effort to loosen or abolish regulations around children in the workforce is under way across the country. Republicans are pushing to loosen child labour laws in at least 16 states, according to the Economic Policy Institute.

Those efforts are driven by groups such as the Foundation for Government Accountability, funded by conservative donors including Richard “Dick” Uihlein, who has also backed a group that sponsored the January 6 Capitol rally in 2021, according to Opensecrets.org.

The foundation claims that eliminating work permits for teenagers would help solve the labour shortage in the US and would not undermine health and safety protections already in place. In August, there were 1.5 job openings for every unemployed person, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

This year Wisconsin Republicans introduced bills that would eliminate work permits for 14- and 15-year-olds and allow children as young as 14 to serve alcohol in restaurants, which would be the lowest age limit in the country, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.

Arkansas, a Republican-led state, approved legislation this year that eliminated the requirement for children under the age of 16 to obtain permission from the state department of labor to be employed, and restored decision-making to parents, proponents said.

However, the permit process helped to protect minors because it meant a state official reviewed the application and ensured they were old enough to work and that the job was safe, says Reid Maki, a director of child labor advocacy for the National Consumers League and coordinator of the Child Labor Coalition, which aims to prevent exploitation of children.

“One of the problems with this whole debate is that legislators extol the value of teen work, but that’s not really the issue because every state allows teens to work. The issue is whether that work is going to be protected and limited to reasonable amounts that doesn’t harm the kid. At a time when we’re seeing such egregious (child labour) violations, you need to be strengthening protections, not weakening them,” Maki adds.

Schuls says he faced additional financial pressure after he and his wife, Stephanie, separated about six years ago, and he became the main carer for their four children. Michael started to work at the sawmill when he was 14 and would chip in to help the family. That money became even more crucial about a year ago when Schuls, who has diabetes, needed to take time off work after an operation to have all the toes on his left foot removed.

The issue is whether work is going to be protected and limited to reasonable amounts that doesn’t harm the kid

Reid Maki, Child Labor Coalition

“If we had to get to a baseball game, and I was short on gas, [Michael] would say, ‘Dad, here’s 20 bucks’,” Schuls says.

When Michael was about 14, he accompanied his father to get his driving licence renewed and asked him why he was an organ donor.

“I said, well, Michael, because if I can help some other family, that’s what I’m going to do,” his father recalls. So when Michael turned 15 and got his own driving permit, he also ticked the box to become a donor.

This act of altruism, seemingly typical of Michael’s sense of responsibility, turned out to be of huge significance after his death. Michael’s mother, Stephanie, had cirrhosis of the liver. “We have liver disease on my mom’s side of the family, but alcohol don’t help either,” she says.

Before Michael died, she hadn’t drunk alcohol for 18 months and was on a transplant list, she says. It turned out Michael was a match. “Never in a million years did I think I was going to get my son’s liver,” she says. “He’s my hero, and he’s other people’s hero.”

She describes her son’s death as “like your heart being ripped out of your chest, the worst feeling in the world”, and she remains angry at Florence Hardwoods. “He should not have been left alone at all,” she says.

Florence Hardwoods declined to comment when approached by the Guardian and directed questions to Leonard & Finco Public Relations. They released a statement saying: “As a small company, employees are like family, and the death of Michael Schuls was devastating. We are only able to move forward thanks to the love and support of our workforce and the community.”

A Labor Department investigation launched in response to Michael’s death discovered that three Florence Hardwood employees, ages 15 to 16, also were injured while working there between November 2021 and March 2023. One of them was injured on two occasions.

The Department deemed the company’s products “hot goods” because they were manufactured with oppressive child labour and prohibited them from shipping the wood. The government lifted that restriction, after the owners agreed not to employ anyone under age 16 and paid $190,000 (£57,000) in civil penalties.

Michael was found to be among nine teens, ages 14 to 17, who illegally operated machinery at the company. They also employed seven teens, ages 14 and 15, outside legally permitted hours. Michael was one of those who worked outside legally permitted hours before he turned 16 – when the regulations change – and had also previously illegally operated dangerous equipment.

“While we did not knowingly or intentionally violate labour laws, we accept the findings and associated penalties,” said a statement provided by the public relations agency about the Labor Department investigation. The owners were responsible for knowing the laws, but they did not knowingly violate them, according to the Labor Department.

The day after the accident, the company terminated all employees under age 18, according to the Labor Department.

“If I could crawl under a rock, I would,” Schuls says. The death of a child would hurt any compassionate person, he says. “To have it be your kid? Totally different level.”

The night before the high school’s homecoming football game in September, Schuls stood watching as local firefighters doused a mountain of scrap wood with gasoline and set it ablaze for a bonfire outside the school.

His middle son, Logan was wearing his brother’s number, 31, for the season. The players also had a sticker, “Schuls 31” on the back of their helmets, and there was a banner with the words “Mikey Strong” on a fence beside the field. People hugged Schuls and asked how he was doing. Later that season, the high school won its first state football championship; Schuls believes Michael continued to help the team.

Two days before the homecoming game, Schuls left his house at 3am. At that time in the rural area, the stars are often bright and Schuls can see the Big Dipper. For the first time since his son had died, Schuls was setting off for a familiar destination: Florence Hardwoods.

He has returned to work there because he needs money and health insurance. Despite his grief, Michael’s father remains grateful to the company for giving him and his sons jobs, he says.

“The company has treated me good over the years,” says Schuls, who started to work at the sawmill in 2016. “They really think that it’s tragic. It should have never happened.” Going back to the sawmill was “one of the hardest things I ever did in my life”, he says. “Life is different. I think I’m a changed man.”