A food sanitation-service provider accused of hiring at least 102 children to work overnight shifts cleaning meatpacking plants in eight states has paid $1.5 million in penalties, the Labor Department said.
Packers Sanitation Services Inc. illegally employed minors between the ages of 13 and 17 at 13 meatpacking facilities around the U.S., the federal agency said Friday.
The children worked with hazardous chemicals and cleaned meat-processing equipment including back saws, brisket saws and head splitters, according to the Labor Department.
At least three minors suffered injuries while working for PSSI, agency investigators said.
PSSI cleans plants operated by some of the country’s largest meatpacking companies, including
JBS USA Holdings Inc. and Cargill Inc., the Labor Department said. Those companies weren’t the focus of the department’s investigation and weren’t fined, it said.
PSSI paid $1.5 million in penalties on Thursday, the agency said.
PSSI said Friday that its policy prohibits employing anyone under the age of 18.
“As soon as we became aware of the DOL’s allegations, we conducted multiple additional audits of our employee base, and hired a third-party law firm to review and help further strengthen our policies in this area,” the Kieler, Wis.-based company said.
The Labor Department began its investigation in August 2022 and, based on its initial findings, a complaint was filed in the U.S. District Court of Nebraska in November.
The complaint alleged PSSI had hired at least 31 children in hazardous occupations to clean dangerous powered equipment during overnight shifts at JBS USA plants in Grand Island, Neb., and Worthington, Minn., and at Turkey Valley Farms in Marshall, Minn.
principal deputy administrator of the Labor Department’s wage and hour division, said Friday the child labor violations were systemic and reflected a companywide failure at PSSI.
“These children should never have been employed in meatpacking plants,” she said in a statement.
A PSSI spokeswoman said the company’s internal audits and the federal investigation confirmed that none of the employees whom the Labor Department identified as minors still work for PSSI and many had left years ago.
A judge issued a temporary restraining order on Nov. 10, forbidding the company and its employees from committing child labor violations under the Fair Labor Standards Act. The law prohibits children under the age of 14 from working, while 14- and 15-year-olds can work until 7 p.m. during the school year and until 9 p.m. between June 1 and Labor Day. The law restricts the number of hours minors can work on school days and prohibits them from operating hazardous equipment and motor vehicles.
On Dec. 6, the U.S. District Court of Nebraska entered a consent order and judgment, in which the employer agreed to comply with child labor provisions in all of its operations, and to take steps to ensure future compliance with the law, including employing an outside compliance specialist. The consent decree didn’t include an admission of wrongdoing.
The Labor Department said it fined PSSI $15,138 for each minor who was employed in violation of the law. The amount is the maximum civil money penalty allowed by federal law.
The investigation included meat processing facilities in Arizona, Colorado, Indiana, Kansas, Tennessee and Texas, along with Minnesota and Nebraska, according to the Labor Department.
the owner of JBS USA Holdings, said it has zero tolerance for child labor. She said the company added measures to confirm the status of sanitation personnel, conducted a third-party audit and discontinued PSSI’s services at its Grand Island, Neb., beef plant, and Worthington, Minn., pork plant.
JBS is also working with the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, which represents meatpacking workers, to pilot in-house sanitation services in its Grand Island and Worthington facilities, she said.
A spokeswoman for agriculture company Cargill said the allegations against PSSI weren’t substantiated. She said the only PSSI employee allegedly working at a Cargill facility who was identified by name as a minor by the Labor Department was investigated and proven to be an adult. Cargill hasn’t yet ended its relationship with PSSI.
Cargill has robust auditing processes and contractor requirements, she added, and would terminate a contractor if it knowingly employed underage labor.
The Labor Department said it had confirmed 27 minors employed by PSSI at two Cargill plants.
Tyson didn’t respond to requests for comment.
The federal investigation found PSSI’s systems had flagged some workers as minors, but the company hired them anyway, the agency said.
“When the Wage and Hour Division arrived with warrants, the adults—who had recruited, hired and supervised these children—tried to derail our efforts to investigate their employment practices,” said
the division’s regional administrator in Chicago.
The PSSI spokeswoman said none of the managers identified by the department as being aware of improper conduct are currently employed at the company.
“We are fully committed to working with DOL to make additional improvements to enforce our prohibition of employing anyone under the age of 18,” she said.