The Department of Labor has requested a nationwide temporary restraining order and injunction against “one of the nation’s leading providers of food safety sanitation” because of the company’s reported habit of hiring extremely young children to perform adult labor.
Filed in court on Wednesday, the request against Packers Sanitation Services (PSSI) was prompted by an investigation that found the company has “employed at least 31 children – from 13 to 17 years of age – in hazardous occupations,” according to a DOL press release.
“The jobs performed by children included cleaning dangerous powered equipment during overnight shifts to fulfill sanitation contracts at JBS USA plants in Grand Island, Nebraska and Worthington, Minnesota, and at Turkey Valley Farms in Marshall, Minnesota,” the press release reads.
DOL investigators also discovered evidence that several of PSSI’s extremely young employees suffered injuries on the job, that PSSI has been trying to intimidate its underage workers into not cooperating with DOL investigators, and that PSSI “deleted and manipulated employment files” to hide its illegal actions.
Horrendous #ChildLabor case. A sanitation company employed at least 31 kids 13-17 yrs old in hazardous occupations, including cleaning dangerous food processing equipment during overnight shifts at @JBSFoodsUSA plants in MN, NE. @USDOL taking action. https://t.co/CJpc5Owbpj
— Terri Gerstein (@TerriGerstein) November 10, 2022
PSSI “hires local workers throughout the country to sanitize industrial plants, like food processing facilities, often in overnight shifts that include ‘work with and around dangerous machinery’ and use of ‘strong chemicals,'” according to The Daily Beast.
And according to NBC News, PSSI “may also employ more kids under similar conditions at 400 other sites across the country, in addition to the 31 minors employed at three sites that investigators already confirmed.”
NBC News further notes that the practices that PSSI has been accused of committing “violate the Fair Labor Standards Act, which prohibits ‘oppressive child labor’ and minors from working in any kind of hazardous employment.”
Established in 1938, the FLSA specifically “prohibits minors under age 18 years old to work in any occupation that it deems to be hazardous.”
“Among these occupations are excavation, manufacturing explosives, mining, and operating many types of power-driven equipment. Certain industries allow minors under age 18 to perform certain tasks at worksites whose primary work activity is dangerous, but these tasks are very specific and the state and federal government closely monitor compliance,” the DOL notes.
According to the DOL press release, the agency’s investigation into PSSI began on Aug. 24th of this year after it received a credible tip “alleging the company assigned minors to work in hazardous occupation.”
The agency subsequently “executed warrants for the company’s operations at the three plants, its local offices and at PSSI’s Keiler, Wisconsin, corporate office.”
The warrants apparently paid off, because DOL officials are now hellbent on bringing down the force of justice on PSSI.
“Federal laws were established decades ago to prevent employers from profiting by putting children in harm’s way. 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,” DOL official Michael Lazzeri said in a statement.
“The Department of Labor will use every available legal resource to protect workers – regardless of their age – and hold to account those employers who mistakenly believe they can violate the Fair Labor Standards Act, obstruct federal investigations, and retaliate against workers who assert their rights,” fellow official Christine Heri added.
The DOL’s complaint, available for review here, recounts testimony from dozens of children.
For instance, it talks about one 14-year-old child, “Minor Child A,” who said they were forced to work the night shift (11:00 pm to 5:00 am or 7:00 am) “cleaning machines with chemicals that gave them a burn.”
“A review of documents confirmed that PSSI first employed Minor Child A at age 13 years and 11 months old to clean machinery on the kill floor overnight (including
on school days for more than three hours on such days and for more than eighteen hours during a week in which school was in session) at the JBS facility,” the complaint reads.
It also talks about another child, “Minor Child B,” who fell asleep in school and sometimes missed classes as a result of working overnight shifts for PSSI.
More horrifyingly, several children reported being forced to work on the “kill floor.” The “kill floor” is where animals are killed and initially processed.
Regarding “Minor Child S,” the complaint notes that they “provided their date of birth and admitted they worked for PSSI for eight months.”
“Per Minor Child S, PSSI hired them when they were 16-years-old to work at the Turkey Valley Farms meat processing facility in Marshall, Minnesota. Minor Child S worked from 10:00 p.m. to 4:00 a.m. during the school year and 8:00 p.m. to 4:00 a.m. during the summer cleaning the meat grinders with a pressure hose,” the complaint reads.
Meanwhile, “Minor Child T” reported that “everybody knew” that they were underage.
PSSI for its part has claimed innocence, arguing in a statement to The Daily Beast that perhaps the children had lied about their ages.
“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,” the statement reads.
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