One of the largest food safety companies in the United States illegally employed more than two dozen children in at least three meatpacking plants, several of whom suffered chemical burns from the corrosive cleaners they were required to use on overnight shifts, the Labor Department found.
The department filed for an injunction in U.S. District Court in Nebraska on Wednesday against Packers Sanitation Services. On Thursday, Judge John. M. Gerrard swiftly ordered the injunction, which requires the company to stop "employing oppressive child labor" and to comply with a Labor Department investigation into the practice.
Packers, a cleaning and sanitation company based in Kieler, Wisconsin, provides contract work at hundreds of slaughtering and meatpacking plants across the country.
The Labor Department found that Packers employed at least 31 children, ages 13-17, who cleaned dangerous equipment with corrosive cleaners during overnight shifts at three slaughtering and meatpacking facilities: a Turkey Valley Farms plant in Marshall, Minnesota, and JBS USA plants in Grand Island, Nebraska, and Worthington, Minnesota.
Their jobs included cleaning kill floors, meat- and bone-cutting saws, grinding machines and electric knives, according to court documents. The mix of boys and girls were not fluent English speakers and were interviewed mostly in Spanish, investigators said.
The Labor Department found that several minors employed by the company, including one 13-year-old, suffered caustic chemical burns and other injuries. One 14-year-old, who worked from 11 p.m. to 5 a.m. five to six days a week, suffered injuries from chemical burns from cleaning machines used to cut meat. School records showed that the student fell asleep in class or missed class because of the job at the plant.
According to court documents, the Labor Department believes Packers may employ minor children under similar conditions at other plants.
The Labor Department also accused the company of interfering with the investigation by intimidating minor workers to discourage them from cooperating, and of deleting and manipulating employment files.
Packers "has an absolute company-wide prohibition against the employment of anyone under the age of 18 and zero tolerance for any violation of that policy — period," it said in a statement. The company denied the Labor Department's accusation that it was not cooperating with the investigation.
In a statement, Turkey Valley Farms said that it was taking the allegations "very seriously" and that it was "reviewing the matter internally."
"We expect all contractors to share our commitment to the health and safety of any individuals working in our facilities and to adhere to these principles that foster a safe work environment as well as to all applicable federal and state labor laws," the company said. It added that it would "take all appropriate action" based on the outcome of the Labor Department's investigation.
JBS USA did not immediately respond to a request for comment Friday.
"Federal laws were established decades ago to prevent employers from profiting by putting children in harm's way," Michael Lazzeri, the regional administrator in the Labor Department's Wage and Hour Division in Chicago, said in a statement. "Taking advantage of children, exposing them to workplace dangers — and interfering with a federal investigation — demonstrates Packers Sanitation Services Inc.'s flagrant disregard for the law and for the well-being of young workers."
Child labor rules prohibit children younger than 14 from working and prohibit 14- and 15-year-olds from working later than 9 p.m. over the summer and past 7 p.m. during the school year. They are also prohibited from working more than three hours on school days, more than eight hours on nonschool days and more than 18 hours per week. Minors cannot operate motor vehicles, forklifts or other hazardous equipment.
The Labor Department began investigating Packers in August when it received a referral from a law enforcement agency that the company was assigning hazardous work to minors. Investigators conducted surveillance, issued warrants for the company's operation, subpoenaed school records and conducted interviews with "many minor children," the department said.