When high school let out in the summer of 2020, 16-year-old Gustavo Ramirez took a job with a construction contractor building a hotel in Nashville.
He hoped to earn enough money to afford his first car, said his older sister, Jenifer Enamorado.
“He wanted something that made him look tough and sporty and would go fast,” Enamorado said. “I think he had the same dreams and aspirations of any 16-year-old."
Enamorado said Gustavo had assured his family he would be doing simple tasks like picking up trash to help maintain the work site.
It came as a terrible surprise when the family learned Gustavo had been working 11 stories high on the hotel’s roofline, reportedly without a safety harness, when he lost his footing and slipped, according to the U.S. Department of Labor and Nashville Police.
He fell 160 feet to his death.
“I always think of him as that little 7-year-old who asked to stay over or asked me if I'd take him to Chuck E. Cheese," Enamorado said during an interview in her home three years after her younger brother’s death. “It’s hard to reconcile that. We've been trying to find a new normal."
A Scripps News investigation has found more teenagers have been getting hurt in American workplaces in recent years as the number of workers under 18 has increased nationwide.
Some of the injuries have been fatal. This past summer, at least three other 16-year-olds died at jobs, including a boy in Missouri who perished after getting pinned in a semi-truck at a landfill.
While deadly injuries remain rare, total workplace injuries and illnesses among people under 18 years old are much more common and have almost doubled in recent years. They rose from about 3,400 in 2011 to more than 6,500 in 2020, according to a Scripps News analysis of the most recent data available from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The bureau compiles these estimates from a survey of employers, which it has found consistently undercounts injuries and illnesses. It is also unclear whether these cases have risen proportionally with the number of children added to the workforce.
The rise in injuries is also occurring in some of the 16 states where lawmakers have been trying to roll back child labor protections.
For those states, Scripps News was able to obtain and analyze injury claim numbers in workers compensation data by age for Arkansas, Maine, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, and Virginia.
Data from each of those states showed reported injuries to workers under 18 hit a peak in recent years.
In March 2023, lawmakers in Tennessee, where Gustavo Ramirez died, passed a law that loosened restrictions on 16- and 17-year-olds working in bars and restaurants that earn more than a quarter of their revenue from alcohol.
“This is a bill that's addressing the labor shortage,” said state Sen. Ed Jackson, a Republican who sponsored the new law.
“Sixteen, seventeen-year-olds—they can drive now,” Jackson said. “This will give them training. And a lot of them are looking for jobs, looking for work, because they need to help the families in some ways."
Scripps News asked whether the increase in injuries among teenage workers was concerning.
“Not with this bill in this industry,” Jackson said. “There's not that much chance for injury."
Data that Scripps News examined from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics showed that dozens of minors are injured working in the restaurant and hospitality industries each year in the senator’s state of Tennessee. The accommodations and hospitality sector is the largest employer of teenagers in the country.
“We certainly need to keep that at the top, to keep your children safe,” Jackson said. “And so hopefully this bill has addressed that."
In all states, federal child labor laws still apply.
Those laws were broken in the case of Gustavo Ramirez.
The U.S. Labor Department fined the teen’s employers $122,364.13 for allowing him to work a dangerous roofing job, prohibited for anyone under the age of 18.
“It definitely feels like a slap on the wrist,” Enamorado said. “We definitely had a lot of memories with my brother, and we cherish those now."
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