JACKSON, Miss. — In Mississippi — one of the poorest states in the U.S. and where a 16-year-old worker recently died after becoming entangled in a factory conveyor belt — a candidate for attorney general said Thursday that elected officials must play a more aggressive role in protecting labor rights.
At a news conference ahead of Labor Day weekend, Greta Kemp Martin, the Democratic nominee for attorney general, rolled out a plan to create a fair labor division within her office if elected. The division would investigate and litigate cases involving child labor, wage violations and unsafe working conditions, Kemp Martin said.
“Labor has been a dirty word in Mississippi for generations. Some might ask why, because to some people, making money is more important than taking care of the people who make that possible,” Kemp Martin said. “Not every employer fits this mold, but it certainly seems to be the case for our governor, attorney general and the majority of our lawmakers.”
The push to strengthen the enforcement of labor laws comes on the heels of a push by lawmakers in some states to loosen child labor regulations amid high demand for workers. In the past two years, at least 10 states have introduced or passed laws that ease workplace protections for minors, according to a March report published by the Economic Policy Institute. Mississippi was not among those states.
But in July, Duvan Perez, a 16-year-old from Guatemala, became the third teenager nationwide to die in an industrial accident this summer. Perez was working on a sanitation crew at Mar-Jac Poultry in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, on July 14 when he became entangled in a conveyor belt he was cleaning, according to records obtained by The Associated Press.
Mar-Jac Poultry blamed an unnamed staffing company for hiring Perez to work at the plant and said Perez’s paperwork appeared to misrepresent his age. The episode was an example of the myriad ways in which Mississippi fails to adequately police its labor market, said Kemp Martin, who is the litigation director for Disability Rights Mississippi.
Mississippi is one of few states to have not adopted a minimum wage above the federal standard of $7.25 per hour. Poverty statistics for 1982 through 2021, reviewed by The Associated Press, show Mississippi was the poorest state for 19 of those 40 years. In 2021, the U.S. poverty rate was 11.6%, and Mississippi’s was the highest in the nation, 17.4%.
In 2022, Mississippi became the final state with a law, one that incumbent Republican Attorney General Lynn Fitch supported, requiring equal pay for equal work by women and men. A 1963 federal law required equal pay for equal work, but Mississippi had been the only state without its own law.
Michelle Williams, a campaign spokesperson for Fitch, said the incumbent helped pass the equal pay law and led Mississippi's shift from having an unemployment office to a Department of Employment Security. Fitch does not support the creation of a fair labor division.
“The people of Mississippi don't need a new government division to work with Biden regulators to sue Mississippi businesses,” Williams said, touting the campaign's endorsement from the National Federation of Independent Business. “General Fitch knows that the way to help Mississippi workers is to support businesses, job growth, and workforce development.”
Kemp Martin said the 2022 equal pay legislation is weaker than federal law, and the state's paid family leave policies aren’t generous enough for women and families.
On the campaign trail, Fitch, who was first elected attorney general in 2019 after two terms as state treasurer, has mentioned her support of policies like the expansion of a full year of Medicaid coverage for women after they give birth. Mississippi enacted the expansion after Fitch helped lead the push to overturn abortion rights nationwide.
Kemp Martin expects the Republican-controlled Legislature to balk at funding her fair labor initiative, but she said the Attorney General’s Office has the discretion to create and dissolve divisions.
Robert Shaffer, president of the Mississippi AFL-CIO labor union, said the state is an outlier and needs to adopt more pro-worker policies.
“We are the only state in the United States that doesn’t have any form of a voice for workers in government at all," Schaffer said. "And if you try to do anything about it, you get put down.”
The general election is Nov. 7.
Michael Goldberg is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues. Follow him at @mikergoldberg.