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Dozens of youths illegally employed to clean meat plants, Labor Dept. says

According to investigators, 13- and 14-year-olds allegedly suffered severe chemical burns while working for a food safety company

WASHINGTON, UNITED STATES - AUG 11: The United States Department of Labor building exterior in Washington, D.C., on Thursday Aug. 11, 2022. (Sarah Silbiger for The Washington Post)
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One of the country’s largest providers of food safety sanitation illegally employed dozens of children at several Midwestern meatpacking facilities, the Labor Department says.

Federal investigators accuse Packer Sanitation Services of employing at least 31 youths, ages 13 to 17, to clean kill floors and other areas where animals are slaughtered.

Several youths, including a 13-year-old, suffered chemical burns and other injuries, the Labor Department said. A 14-year-old worker who also suffered burns, investigators said, cleaned meat-cutting machines 18 hours a week during 11 p.m. to 5 a.m. shifts, then went to school and fell asleep in classes or missed them completely.

All the children spoke Spanish, and investigations were conducted in Spanish, according to court documents.

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“Federal laws were established decades ago to prevent employers from profiting by putting children in harm’s way,” Michael Lazzeri, a Labor Department official 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.”

The Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 prohibits children under the age of 14 from working, and children between the ages of 14-to-15 years old from working after 9 p.m. from June 1 through labor day, and past 7 p.m. during the school year. It also prevents them from working more than three hours on school days and 18 hours a week. It prohibits all minors from operating hazardous equipment.

Packer Sanitation Services interfered with the Labor Department’s investigation by intimidating the children from cooperating with investigators, the agency alleged in a complaint filed Wednesday. The company also deleted and manipulated employment records, the Department said.

A federal judge on Thursday granted a preliminary injunction ordering the company to immediately stop using “oppressive child labor” and comply with the Labor Department’s demands for information.

Gina Swenson, a spokesperson for Packer Sanitation Services, said the company prohibits the employment of anyone under the age of 18 and does not tolerate any violation of that policy, noting that the company has “industry-leaning” procedures for confirming the identities of its employees, including the government’s E-Verify system.

“While rogue individuals could of course seek to engage in fraud or identity theft, we are confident in our company’s strict compliance policies and will defend ourselves vigorously against these claims,” Swenson said.

Packer Sanitation Services provides contract services, including sanitation, for about 700 food processing plants in the United States and employs 17,000 workers.

The children employed by Packer Sanitation Services worked at meatpacking plants owned JBS USA, a subsidiary of JBS Foods, the world’s largest meat processor, in Grand Island, Nebraska and Worthington, Minnesota, and Marshall, Minnesota, according to court records. Packer Sanitation Services has sanitation contracts with JBS USA in each of those facilities.

Michael Koenig, the chief ethics and compliance officer at JBS, said the meat processor is “taking seriously the allegations” against its contractor, which if true, are a clear violation of its ethics policies. “We are immediately launching an independent, third-party audit at all of our facilities to thoroughly evaluate this situation.”

The child labor allegations put another harsh spotlight on the meatpacking industry, which has been criticized for exposing workers to dangerous conditions that have led to severe injuries and deaths. The industry, including JBS Foods, took a lax approach to protecting workers, many of them Black and Latino, against the coronavirus during the pandemic, lawmakers and worker groups said. A House investigation found that at least 269 workers at five companies, including JBS, died of covid during the first 11 months of the outbreak.

The Labor Department’s wage and hour division began its investigation on Aug. 24, when the division received “credible information” alleging that the company employed children in hazardous occupations.

The investigation also found that they had cleaned electric knives, paddle bone pullers, fat skinner and meat bandsaws, and conveyor belts where meat is cut. Some of the children worked in rooms with saws and kidney fat pullers, according to the Labor Department complaint.

In Grand Island, Nebraska, a 17-year-old who said they had worked for several weeks on the cleaning floor told investigators that “many other” students worked for Packer at the JBS facility.

Packer made numerous attempts to block the investigation, the complaint alleges. Managers repeatedly told Labor Department investigators not to take photos or video. An interviewee said “someone” had instructed them to only stay for five minutes during the interview, and spent the interview texting on their phone. An investigator also witnessed a supervisor who said they used their work phone to delete and archive WhatsApp messages on their phone.