MADISON, Wis. (AP) - A northern Wisconsin sawmill has agreed to pay nearly $191,000 and stop hiring children under 16 to settle a federal lawsuit labor regulators filed after a teenager was killed on the job this summer and other child employees were hurt in a string of accidents.
Michael Schuls died in July after he became pinned in a wood-stacking machine at Florence Hardwoods. He was trying to clear a jam in the machine in the facility’s planing mill when the conveyor belt he was standing on moved and left him pinned, according to Florence County Sheriff’s Office reports obtained by The Associated Press through open records requests.
An ensuing U.S. Department of Labor investigation found that three children ages 15 to 16 were hurt at the sawmill between November 2021 and March 2023.
The sawmill also employed nine children between the ages of 14 and 17 to illegally run machines such as saws, the investigation found. Most work in sawmills and logging is prohibited for minors. But children 16 and older can work in Wisconsin planing mills like the Florence Hardwoods facility where Shuls was pinned. Planing mills are the final processing sites for lumber.
The investigation also determined that seven child employees between 14 and 17 worked outside legally permitted hours.
The labor department filed a civil lawsuit against Florence Hardwoods on Tuesday, but the agency and the sawmill’s attorneys had already reached a consent decree to settle the action in late August. U.S. District Judge William Griesbach approved the deal Wednesday.
According to the agreement, the sawmill will pay the labor department about $191,000. In exchange, the department will lift its so-called hot goods restrictions on the facility, which prohibit the sawmill from selling anything produced using illegal child labor.
The agreement bars Florence Hardwoods from hiring anyone under 16 and requires it to notify the labor department if it hires anyone between the ages of 16 and 18. Employees between those ages must be treated as apprentices or student learners. Federal law severely limits those employees’ exposure to dangerous tasks and requires that such work be conducted under the supervision of an experienced worker.
Florence Hardwoods also will be required to place warning stickers on all dangerous equipment and post signs visible from 10 feet away warning people that anyone under 18 isn’t allowed in the facility’s sawmill and planer mill. The facility also will have to submit to unannounced inspections.
Florence Hardwoods officials released a statement Friday through their attorney, Jodi Arndt Labs, insisting they didn’t knowingly or intentionally violate labor laws but saying they will accept the penalties.
"As a small company, employees are like family, and the death of Michael Schuls was devastating," the statement said. "We are only able to move forward thanks to the love and support of our workforce and the community. Michael will forever be in our hearts and his family in our prayers."
Schuls’ family has in the past declined to comment on allegations of negligence by Florence Hardwoods. A message to a person managing the family’s GoFundMe page was not immediately returned Friday, and attempts to reach family members by phone and email weren’t successful.
Wisconsin labor regulators have also launched an investigation into Schuls’ death. State Department of Workforce Development spokesperson John Dipko said in an email to the AP that the agency is reviewing the consent decree and "will determine appropriate next steps." He didn’t elaborate.
Schuls’ death comes as lawmakers in several states, including Wisconsin, are embracing legislation to loosen child labor laws. States have passed measures to let children work in more hazardous occupations, for more hours on school nights and in expanded roles. Wisconsin Republicans back a proposal to allow children as young as 14 to serve alcohol in bars and restaurants.