One of the country’s largest food sanitation service providers has paid $1.5 million in penalties for illegally employing at least 102 children to clean 13 meatpacking plants on overnight shifts, the Labor Department announced Friday.
Investigators learned in recent months that at least three children suffered injuries, including a chemical burn to the face, while sanitizing kill floors and other areas of slaughterhouses in the middle of the night.
In a statement, a spokeswoman for Packers said the company has a “zero-tolerance policy” on employing underage workers. Packers is privately owned by Blackstone, one of the world’s largest private equity firms, and employs roughly 17,000 workers.
Child labor violations have been on the rise in the United States since 2015. The number of minors found to be employed in violation of child labor laws shot up by 37 percent between 2021 and 2022. The number of children found to be illegally employed in hazardous occupations, such as meatpacking and construction, spiked by 93 percent over the past seven years.
Experts say a historically tight labor market could be fueling this rise in violations, with employers tapping into new labor pools to fill vacancies across a variety of industries. The national unemployment rate, at 3.4 percent in January, is the lowest recorded since 1969. The rise in child labor violations may also be attributable to shifts in enforcement of child labor laws.
Federal officials said the Packers case was far-reaching.
“The child labor violations in this case were systemic and reached across eight states, and clearly indicate a corporate-wide failure by Packers Sanitation Services at all levels,” said Jessica Looman, principal deputy administrator of the Labor Department’s wage and hour division, in a statement. “These children should never have been employed in meat packing plants and this can only happen when employers do no take responsibility to prevent child labor violations from occurring in the first place.”
Packers Sanitation Service’s payment of $1.5 million in civil penalties on Feb. 16 is the result of a federal investigation that began in August.
“We are pleased to have finalized this settlement figure as part of our previously announced December resolution with the Department of Labor that ends their inquiry,” said Gina Swenson, a Packers spokesperson, in a statement. “We have been crystal clear from the start: Our company has a zero-tolerance policy against employing anyone under the age of 18 and fully shares the [Labor Department’s] objective of ensuring full compliance at all locations.”
Swenson added that as soon as Packers became aware of the Labor Department’s investigation, the company conducted several audits of its workforce and hired a third-party law firm to review its policies. The firm’s audits confirmed that the minors identified by the government as under the age of 18 no longer work for the company, Swenson said.
The company’s workers have previously suffered severe injuries. One Packers employee was decapitated while cleaning a chicken chiller at a Tyson facility in 2020.
The Labor Department’s findings were spread out across a wide swath of major meatpacking facilities. The agency found that at least 27 children cleaned a JBS Beef Plant in Grand Island, Neb. Another 26 children cleaned a Cargill meat-processing facility in Dodge City, Kan. The Labor Department also found child labor violations at meatpacking facilities where Packers operates in Minnesota, Indiana, Colorado, Arkansas, Tennessee and Texas.
April Nelson, a spokesperson for Cargill, one of the country’s largest meat processors, said the Labor Department made no claims of misconduct against the firm.
In light of the investigation, JBS Beef has begun working with the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union to pilot in-house sanitation services at some of its facilities, rather than contracting those jobs out. Nikki Richardson, a JBS spokeswoman, said the meatpacker took immediate action to prevent underage workers from having access to its facilities and terminated its contracts with Packers.
The Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 prohibits all minors from working in hazardous occupations, which regulators have defined to include sanitation in meatpacking facilities. It also prohibits children under the age of 14 from working, and children between the ages of 14 and 15 from working past 7 p.m. or for more than three hours on school days.
Some of the kids who worked at the meatpacking facilities attended middle school and high school during the day while working at the facilities, according to court records. Many of the children spoke only Spanish, and at least some Labor Department interviews with minors were conducted in Spanish, investigators said.
Court records allege that a 13-year-old who cleaned a JBS Beef plant in Grand Island, Neb., from 11 p.m. to 5 a.m. during the school year suffered chemical burns. A 14-year-old worker, who also suffered burns on the night shift, fell asleep in classes or missed school completely, according to court documents.
In November, the Labor Department filed a complaint against Packers in federal court in Nebraska, and a judge responded by issuing a temporary restraining order forbidding Packers from violating child labor laws.
Packers said in a court filing in December that when the Labor Department identified “two handfuls of alleged minors by name” working at their facilities, the sanitation firm quickly terminated “any such named individuals still working” at the company.
But Labor Department officials said that Packers overlooked warnings that they had hired minors. “Our investigation found Packers Sanitation Services’ systems flagged some young workers as minors, but the company ignored the flags,” Michael Lazzeri, a Labor Department administrator in Chicago said in a statement.
When the Labor Department brought search warrants to the facilities, the adults who had hired and supervised the minors “tried to derail our efforts to investigate their employment practices,” Lazzeri said.
Court records allege that the company also deleted and manipulated employment records and intimidated children from sharing information with investigators.
Last month, some states introduced bills that would roll back child workplace protections to deal with labor shortages. A measure in Iowa would allow 14- and 15- year olds to work certain jobs in meatpacking facilities. Meanwhile, a bill in Minnesota would allow 16- and 17- years olds to work in construction.
Experts say the push to relax child labor laws is part of a long-standing trend in the labor market. When employers struggle to hire, they tend to look to younger, more inexperienced workers to fill open roles, rather than improve pay and benefits for their existing workforce.
Maria Sacchetti and Jacob Bogage contributed to this report.