Tennessee Company Hired Children to Operate ‘Dangerous’ Machinery, Officials Say

A Tennessee manufacturer has been fined nearly $300,000 for employing children as young as 14 to operate “dangerous machinery” and requiring them to work more hours than the law allows, federal regulators said.

Tuff Torq Corp., which manufactures outdoor-power-equipment components for brands that include John Deere, Toro and Yamaha, must pay a civil penalty of $296,951 and follow federal child labor laws in the future, the Labor Department said in a statement on Monday.

The company must also set aside $1.5 million in profits related to the employment of the 10 children who were found to be working at its factory in Morristown, Tenn. That money, the Labor Department said, “will be used for the benefit of the children employed illegally.” A department spokesman said the children were as young as 14.

The judgment was entered in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Tennessee after the Labor Department’s wage and hour division found that Tuff Torq had employed several children to perform dangerous jobs.

Officials began their investigation months ago and obtained “clear evidence” of labor violations in January, when they observed a child operating a power-driven hoisting apparatus, which is prohibited for workers under the age of 18.

“Even one child working in a dangerous environment is too many,” Jessica Looman, the administrator of the wage and hour division, said in the statement. “Over the past year, we have seen an alarming increase in child labor violations, and these violations put children in harm’s way.”

“With this agreement,” she added, “we are ensuring Tuff Torq takes immediate and significant steps to stop the illegal employment of children.”

Tuff Torq said in a statement that it “did not directly employ the individuals,” referring to the underage workers, who it said had been hired by a “temporary work force staffing agency,” which it did not identify.

“Tuff Torq is dedicated to ensuring that their products and services are produced under ethical conditions, with a strong emphasis on fair labor practices, and Tuff Torq is further strengthening our relevant training and compliance programs,” the manufacturer’s statement said. “We are also actively engaging with our suppliers to reinforce our expectations regarding ethical labor practices.”

In addition to the financial penalties, Tuff Torq agreed to certain provisions. They include working with a community-based organization to provide regular training to employees, managers and contractors; establishing an anonymous tip line for reporting child labor and other suspected labor violations; and allowing unannounced and warrantless searches of its factory for three years.

The enforcement action comes as child labor violations have increased across the country, labor officials said.

In fiscal year 2023, the Labor Department said, the agency investigated 955 cases of child labor violations, involving 5,792 children nationwide, including 502 children employed in violation of hazardous occupation standards.

In February, the Labor Department said that a Tennessee company had employed at least 24 children between the ages of 13 and 17 to work overnight shifts cleaning dangerous equipment at slaughterhouses in Virginia and Iowa. The department opened its investigation after The New York Times Magazine reported last year that the company, Fayette Janitorial Service L.L.C., had hired migrant children to work the overnight cleaning shift at a Perdue Farms plant on the Eastern Shore of Virginia.

And last year, Packers Sanitation Services Inc. paid a $1.5 million penalty after a Labor Department investigation found that children between the ages of 13 and 17 had worked overnight shifts at 13 meat-processing plants in eight states, mostly in the South and the Midwest.