Penalties show what N.C. takes seriously

Ask yourself this question: How much is a teenager's life worth?

In North Carolina, it's worth $250. That's the most an employer caught flouting child labor rules has to pay. That pathetic slap on the wrist is one reason those rules aren't working. It's easy – and economical – for employers to exploit young workers and give them dangerous jobs.

Puny fines send the message that it's OK to sidestep the rules. Step one in keeping child workers safe in the Tar Heel state is for lawmakers to enact penalties that take a bite out of companies when they ignore regulations. Cherie Berry, the state's newly re-elected labor commissioner, should make that a priority for her third term.

Step two is for North Carolina to strengthen oversight of worker safety, period. That means cracking down on industries that hire kids too young to do dangerous work.

Child labor laws are intended to protect young workers from harm by penalizing unscrupulous employers who put them in jobs they are not equipped for. Yet an Observer investigation found those rules are not vigorously enforced by federal or state agencies in charge of oversight. Federal penalties for violators dropped 29 percent from 2000 to 2007. Meanwhile, injury rates among young workers did not improve.

Reporters also found youths in North Carolina doing dangerous work, particularly in the state's poultry processing industry. That record should not stand.

North Carolina's labor department policies have been tilted toward business, not worker safety, under Berry's leadership. She did not write the rules for child labor. The state legislature did.

Yet she has not lifted a hand to change laughable penalties for violators: $50 for hiring kids without the required employment certificate, for example, and a maximum of $250 for any violation.

To put that in perspective: Penalties for littering in North Carolina start at $250. Where are our priorities?

On Nov. 4 voters returned Berry to office by a slim margin, although she has done little to protect workers. The right gesture from her would be to prioritize enforcement instead of appeasing business.

Job No. 1 for Berry? Campaign for steep fines for child labor violators. If she doesn't do it, lawmakers must.