One of the biggest food safety sanitation companies in the United States had at least 102 kids working overnight shifts in dangerous conditions at meat processing facilities across the country, the U.S. Department of Labor said Friday.
Packers Sanitation Services Inc. Ltd. has agreed to pay $1.5 million in penalties after a DOL investigation discovered it had been employing children ranging in age from 13 to 17 years old to clean razor sharp saws and other equipment using hazardous chemicals, according to a statement from the agency.
The Wisconsin-based services provider had kids cleaning things like back saws, brisket saws and head splitters, and at least three of the children were injured while working, the DOL said. Packers Sanitation was fined a little more than $15,100 for each minor-aged employee, the maximum civil penalty allowed by the law, according to the agency.
Jessica Looman, principal deputy administrator of the DOL's wage and hour division, said the child labor violations by Packers Sanitation were systemic, stretched across eight states and "clearly indicate a corporate-wide failure by Packers Sanitation Services at all levels."
"These children should never have been employed in meat packing plants and this can only happen when employers do not take responsibility to prevent child labor violations from occurring in the first place," Looman said in the statement.
The children were employed at meat processing facilities operated by a number of processors including Tyson Food Inc., Cargill Inc., Greater Omaha Packing Co. Inc. and Maple Leaf Farms Inc., according to the DOL. Those facilities are in Arkansas, Colorado, Indiana, Kansas, Minnesota, Nebraska, Tennessee and Texas, the agency said.
According to the DOL, it began looking into Packers Sanitation last August. In November 2022, the solicitor's office filed a complaint in Nebraska federal court accusing the company of employing at least 31 children to clean dangerous powered equipment during overnight shifts at JBS USA plants in Grand Island, Nebraska, and Worthington, Minnesota, and at Turkey Valley Farms in Marshall, Minnesota. Later that month, a Nebraska federal judge issued a temporary restraining order blocking Packers Sanitation Services from committing child labor violations.
Last December, Packers Sanitation agreed to comply with child labor laws nationwide and take "significant steps" to ensure future compliance, according to a consent order and judgment. And on Thursday, the company paid the $1.5 million in penalties, the DOL said.
Michael Lazzeri, the DOL's wage and hour regional administrator in Chicago, said the agency's probe found that Packers Sanitation's systems "flagged some young workers as minors, but the company ignored the flags."
"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," Lazzeri said.
PSSI said in a statement the company has a "zero-tolerance policy against employing anyone under the age of 18 and fully shares the DOL's objective of ensuring full compliance at all locations."
PSSI said that as soon as it became aware of the DOL's allegations, it conducted its own audits and hired a third-party law firm to review its policies and help bolster them. Hiring managers have also been given additional training, according to the statement.
"Our audits and DOL's investigation confirmed that none of the individuals DOL cited as under the age of 18 work for the company today, and many had separated from employment with PSSI multiple years ago," PSSI said. "The DOL has also not identified any managers aware of improper conduct that are currently employed by PSSI."
The Labor Department is represented in-house by Ambriel Renn-Scanlan, Traci Martin and Laura O'Reilly.
Packers Sanitation is represented by J. Randall Coffey and Patrick M. Dalin of Fisher & Phillips, and Gillian G. O'Hara of Kutak Rock LLP.
The Nebraska case is Martin J. Walsh v. Packers Sanitation Services Inc. Ltd., case number 4:22-cv-03246, in the U.S. District Court for the District of Nebraska.