OMAHA, Neb. (AP) — A federal judge ordered a Wisconsin company that cleans hundreds of slaughterhouses nationwide to ensure it is complying with child labor laws after investigators identified at least 50 minors scrubbing and sanitizing dangerous equipment on overnight shifts at five different meatpacking plants in three states.
As part of an agreement with the Labor Department that was announced along with Tuesday’s court ruling in Nebraska, Packers Sanitation Services Inc. also promised to hire an outside consultant to review its hiring policies and provide additional training for its managers.
Investigators with the Labor Department visited three plants owned by JBS and Turkey Valley Farms in Nebraska and Minnesota this fall and found 31 underage workers as young as 13. Since this lawsuit was filed last month, additional underage workers have been identified, including at two additional plants: the Greater Omaha Packing Co. beef plant in Omaha, Nebraska, and a George’s Inc. poultry plant in Batesville, Arkansas.
Investigators also searched a Tyson Foods plant in Sedalia, Missouri, but the Labor Department hasn't identified any minors working there yet.
Thousands of pages of records from other plants are also being reviewed to determine if any additional minors are working there. At the plants where underage workers have been identified so far, investigators are comparing local school records with Packers Sanitation Services records to identify workers younger than 18. The company employs some 17,000 people working at more than 700 locations nationwide, making it one of the largest firms out there that cleans food processing plants.
"This case should serve as a stark reminder for all employers that the U.S. Department of Labor will not tolerate violations of the law, especially those that put vulnerable children at risk,” said Wage and Hour Regional Administrator Michael Lazzeri who is based in Chicago.
PSSI Vice President of Marketing Gina Swenson said the company already does what the government recommends to verify the age and immigration status of its employees, but it agreed to take additional steps to ensure compliance and address the Labor Department's concerns.
“We have been crystal clear from the start: PSSI has a zero-tolerance policy against employing anyone under the age of 18 and fully shares DOL’s objective of ensuring it is followed to the letter at all local plants,” Swenson said.
The company also agreed to fire any underage workers the Labor Department identifies and sanction any managers involved in hiring them. PSSI will also work to identify any minors working for it as well and fire them.
Swenson has said that PSSI is cooperating with investigators although the Labor Department said in court documents that some local managers interfered with employee interviews at the plants.
The underage workers that investigators confirmed included one 13-year-old who suffered a serious chemical burn from the caustic chemicals used to clean the JBS plant in Grand Island, Nebraska, every night.
Investigators said in court documents that some of the teens they found working for PSSI told them that “everyone there knew” that they were minors, and in one case, a search of an employment database showed that one employee’s age came up as 129-years-old when their Social Security number was checked.
The meat processing companies that own the plants where underage workers were initially identified have said they are monitoring the investigation and will consider taking action against PSSI if necessary. A representative of Greater Omaha Packing didn't immediately respond to questions Tuesday, and no one answered the phone at the corporate headquarters of George's Inc.
This story has been updated to correct the location of the George's Inc. plant where investigators found at least one underage PSSI worker. That plant is located in Batesville, Arkansas, not Springdale, Arkansas.
Josh Funk, The Associated Press