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Court documents filed in Nebraska reveal that a Worthington, Minn., manager of a sanitation contractor solicited fake identification documents that obscured the age of children illegally hired to clean slaughterhouses in the Midwest.

U.S. Department of Labor prosecutors say that the Kieler, Wis.-based company Packers Sanitation Services Inc. (PSSI) employed more than 30 minors — including six children in the southwestern Minnesota towns of Worthington and Marshall — to work at two JBS-owned packing facilities and an independent turkey plant.

People younger than 18 can legally work in the United States, but not in slaughterhouses, which are deemed "hazardous" under the Fair Labor Standards Act. During the school year, federal labor law permits minors to work limited hours during the day in other environments, but never overnight shifts.

The JBS plant in Worthington employs more than 2,000 people, processing about 20,000 hogs a day. Turkey Valley Farms in Marshall employs 400 people and operates a 110,000-square-foot plant, according to the company website.

In a statement issued Tuesday, Michael Koenig, JBS chief ethics and compliance officer, said the company has "zero tolerance for child labor, discrimination, or unsafe working conditions" and has put in "interim measures to confirm the status of all sanitation personnel at our facilities" following an independent audit.

Federal prosecutors say PSSI supervisors in Worthington and Grand Island, Neb., knew that minors were hired to work dangerous jobs, often overnight, cleaning hazardous equipment in hot steam and standing in meat-filled water on the killing room floor. In one instance, a ninth-grader in Worthington is alleged to have used a fake ID to land a job he'd worked for two years.

According to an investigator's affidavit, a PSSI manager in Worthington texted on his work-issued cellphone with another underage worker, discussing the use of false identity documents.

"The ID will need to have your face and that'll work," the manager texted back, according to court documents.

In a separate text message exchange viewed by a federal investigator, the manager offered assistance to an individual seeking fraudulent ID papers for an application to Pella, a window manufacturer based in Iowa.

PSSI confirmed to the Star Tribune late on Tuesday that the Worthington plant manager had been suspended "pending an ongoing investigation in the matter."

Through a series of acquisitions, PSSI has grown to control the lion's share of cleaning duties across the U.S. meatpacking landscape.

The non-unionized company, based across the Mississippi River from Dubuque, Iowa, has defended its compliance measures. However, it acknowledged that "rogue individuals" could engage in fraud, in response to child labor allegations aired last week by prosecutors in a federal court proceeding in Nebraska.

"PSSI 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," the company said in a statement forwarded to the Star Tribune by Gina Swenson, a PSSI vice president.

In 2018, private equity firm Blackstone purchased PSSI for an undisclosed amount. According to a report issued in March by a private equity watchdog group, PSSI was cited — along with three other companies — in July 2021 by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) for a nitrogen leak at a Georgia poultry plant that left six workers dead. In a statement to the Star Tribune, Blackstone said PSSI was in "no way involved with this tragic incident," which was caused by manufacturer negligence and defective equipment.

According to the search warrant affidavit, Labor Department attorneys say their investigation was triggered by a police report filed in Nebraska about a minor who had been injured while working at the JBS plant in Grand Island.

Beginning this fall, teams of investigators in Minnesota and Nebraska conducted surveillance during shift changes outside JBS facilities, noting sanitation workers "who appeared to be minors" walking into the facility. After investigators received a judge's approval of search warrants, they subpoenaed records at PSSI's corporate office in Wisconsin.

Beginning at midnight on Oct. 13, Labor Department investigators carrying search warrants entered meatpacking facilities in Worthington and Grand Island, taking photographs, inspecting records and interviewing workers — including many underage — at cafeterias and in breakrooms.

Affidavits from investigators suggest PSSI staff attempted to obstruct interviews. The workforce in Worthington is largely immigrant and Latino. Investigators say the interviews with the underage workers were largely conducted in Spanish.

At least one teenage worker in Worthington was visibly upset and left the interview. A child as young as 13 was found employed in Grand Island, where investigators reported the child had chemical burns from a cleaner.

Records in the court case — brought by U.S. Labor Secretary Marty Walsh — also reveal the investigators served subpoenas to school officials in Worthington and Marshall for student records. On Monday, Worthington Public Schools Superintendent John Landgaard told the Star Tribune that the school has not implemented any formal programming to educate children about the dangers of abusive labor.

"This whole child labor isn't our thing," Landgaard said. "There's informal conversations with kids by our counselors, but we don't have it officially programmed as part of curriculum."

Charlotte Garden, a professor at the University of Minnesota who teaches labor and employment law, said what makes the accusations shocking is how blatantly illegal it is to hire children to clean slaughterhouses — where there are many sharp, industrial-strength tools meant to saw through the torsos of animals and remove hides.

"The allegations here are especially egregious and comprehensive," Garden said. "Children can't work cleaning meat-processing machines under any circumstances because that is a 'hazardous occupation.' "

Garden noted that the contractor often — though not always — can provide a legal shield to a larger company regarding employment law violations.

Debbie Berkowitz, a fellow at Georgetown University's Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor, told the Star Tribune that child labor abuses culminate a rash of worker safety violations in the heavily consolidated industry since the pandemic began.

"There's a shortage of workers everywhere because these are low-paying jobs and incredibly hazardous, so they cycle through workers," said Berkowitz, a former OSHA senior policy adviser under President Barack Obama. "This is a self-inflicted problem."

The Brazilian-owned JBS is the world's largest meatpacker. In the company statement, Koenig says the firm is "assessing all options in connection with the provision of sanitation services for our Grand Island, Neb., and Worthington, Minn., facilities."

In an email, Turkey Valley — the Marshall-based turkey processor — said that it expects contractors to "share our commitment to the health and safety of any individuals working in our facilities."

According to court records, one high school student in Marshall told investigators "everyone there knew" at the plant that the student was underage. In Worthington, a 16-year-old cleaned machines and conveyor belts all night in the ham department and attended school in the morning.

The ninth-grader in Worthington told investigators that they were 18, but subpoenaed school records revealed the child was actually 17. This student used a pressure hose to "pick up meat from the floor," according to Labor Department officers. Company logs revealed the child had been working the midnight shift since age 15.

This story has been updated to include new information, provided by the company after print deadline, regarding the plant manager's employment status and OSHA's citation in the Georgia poultry incident.

Correction: An earlier version of this story included a photo from the U.S. Department of Labor that included a person the agency said was an underage illegal worker. The woman was an adult and legally working.