A Taco John's in Cloquet.
A truck stop McDonald's in Albert Lea.
A grocery store in St. Louis Park.
Of the 44 locations the Minnesota Department of Labor & Industry says have hired illegal child labor over the last five years, many are in the food industry. But no meatpacking plants were on the list the department provided this week to the Star Tribune.
That's why the employment of teenagers by Packers Sanitation Services Inc. to clean slaughterhouses in Worthington and Marshall is so brazen, said state and federal officials, as well as researchers who study child labor.
"The specific allegations here are just so shocking, in part because of how they compound each other," said Charlotte Garden, a University of Minnesota law professor. "It's hard to think of a worse set of child-labor violations than very young kids working overnight in a hazardous environment."
The resolution on Tuesday of a civil lawsuit filed by the U.S. Department of Labor against PSSI for hiring at least 50 minors to illegally work at meatpacking facilities in three states has brought closure to a federal court case. But it hasn't ended the Labor Department's probe into PSSI.
Federal attorneys said in recent court documents in Nebraska that the overall tally of minors illegally employed by PSSI can — and likely will — increase. There may also be fines levied against PSSI, which says rogue employees and fabricated identification documents skirted a company prohibition against hiring anyone under the age of 18.
In a recent interview, Gov. Tim Walz faulted Congress for not completing immigration reform that would not only alleviate a historically tight job market but "bring people out of the shadows."
"We want to make sure that, whether they're working [in the field] or working processing, they're protected," Walz said.
The sprawling pork slaughterhouse in Worthington, now managed by Brazilian-owned JBS, has drawn scrutiny in the past for hiring people who are not legally allowed to work in the U.S. In 2006, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement arrested more than 200 workers at the Worthington plant, then owned by meatpacker Swift & Co.
But this fall's Labor Department investigation, which came to light in court filings last month, stands alone for documenting widespread employment of minors in Minnesota.
Investigators with the Labor Department's Wage and Hour Division say that as of the first week of December, seven children were employed at the JBS USA plant in Worthington and another two at Turkey Valley Farms in Marshall. Federal authorities allege dozens more were employed at facilities in Omaha and Grand Island, Neb., and Batesville, Ark.
Investigators corroborated ages using local school records.
"In agriculture, it's legal to work at age 12 in Minnesota," said Eric Edmonds, an economist at Dartmouth College who studies child and forced labor. "But slaughterhouses, in general, are going to be on any state's list of hazardous occupation."
In many cases, it appears minors used false documentation to be hired for positions suitable only for adults.
According to court files, a 14-year-old PSSI employee with a chemical burn was referred by law enforcement in Nebraska to the Labor Department. According to documents obtained by Wage and Hour investigators, the child had worked at the JBS plant in Grand Island, Neb., since the age of 13.
Edmonds noted that state governments don't often devote large resources to enforcing child labor laws. Such investigations heighten scrutiny of a company's overall operations.
"Usually, when child labor violations occur in the U.S., it's because there's something else you want to go after the employer for," Edmonds said.
As part of Tuesday's consent order, PSSI is bound by a permanent injunction from doing any more hiring of underage workers. The Labor Department, similarly, is required to let PSSI know of any further child labor abuses it uncovers during the course of its investigation, allowing the company 10 days to "cure" any violation.