Meat plant cleaning service fined $1.5M for hiring minors
MINNEAPOLIS — One of the country’s largest cleaning services for food processing companies employed more than 100 children in hazardous jobs at 13 meatpacking plants across the country, the U.S. Labor Department said on Friday as it announced more than $1.5 million in civil penalties.
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The investigation into Packers Sanitation Services Inc., PSSI for short, began last summer. Department officials searched three JBS USA and Turkey Valley Farms meatpacking plants in Nebraska and Minnesota and found 31 underage workers as young as 13. They also searched the PSSI headquarters in Kiel, Wisconsin. Underage workers have been found in factories in eight states.
The department then reviewed the records of 55 locations where PSSI provided cleaning services and found even more violations involving children ages 13 to 17. The agency obtained an injunction in November and a permanent injunction in December when PSSI issued a consent judgment requiring the company to stop illegally employing minors.
In the past three years, children have been found using caustic cleaning chemicals and cleaning “dangerous power-operated equipment such as skull cleavers and razor-sharp bone saws,” Jessica Looman, deputy chief administrator of the department’s payroll and hours division, told reporters.
At least three of those minors, including a 13-year-old, suffered burns from the chemicals used to clean the JBS plant in Grand Island, Nebraska, officials said.
Some of the children work night shifts and are also enrolled in schools during the day, department spokeswoman Rhonda Burke said in an email.
The PSSI fine of $15,138 paid Thursday for each minor is the maximum allowable under federal law. But investigators believe the company actually employed many more than the 102 children they checked. After the approval verdict, Looman said, PSSI must identify them and remove them from hazardous work.
“Make no mistake, this is not a typographical error or the actions of rogues or bad managers,” Looman said. “These findings represent a systematic failure by the entire PSSI organization to ensure children are not working in violation of the law. In many cases, the PSSI systems indicated that these children were too young to work and yet they were still employed in these facilities.”
The company’s marketing vice president, Gina Swenson, said in a statement Friday that the company has “a zero-tolerance policy towards hiring anyone under the age of 18.”
As soon as PSSI became aware of the allegations, it conducted audits and hired an outside law firm to strengthen its policies. PSSI has also conducted additional training for hiring managers, including how to detect identity theft, she said.
None of the minors identified by federal investigators still work for PSSI, and the Department of Labor “nor has identified any managers who are aware of the inappropriate behavior and are currently employed by the company,” Swenson added.
According to PSSI, it employs around 17,000 people at more than 700 locations across the country, making it one of the largest cleaning companies for food processing plants.
The 13 plants found to have violations were located in Arkansas, Colorado, Indiana, Kansas, Minnesota, Nebraska, Tennessee and Texas. Those with the most violations were the JBS facility in Grand Island, Nebraska, where PSSI employed 27 minors; the Cargill plant in Dodge City, Kansas, where 26 children worked; and a JBS facility in Worthington, Minnesota, where 22 minors worked. The Department of Labor also searched a Tyson facility in Sedalia, Missouri, but found no evidence of violations there.
When asked about the children’s immigration status, Labor Department attorney Seema Nanda said the Department is only focused on whether they are minors.
And because the department is a civilian law enforcement agency, officials can’t comment on whether any of the factories could face criminal charges or whether any of the children have been trafficked, said Michael Lazzeri, regional administrator for the department’s Wage and Hour division. He said any human trafficking discovered would be referred to other agencies.
According to Looman, the Wage and Hour Division has seen a roughly 50% increase in child labor violations since 2018, including minors working more hours than allowed in otherwise legal jobs, using equipment they shouldn’t be using in legal jobs, and children People who work there shouldn’t be employed at all.
“Nobody under the age of 18 should work in a meat processing plant,” she said.
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