A Wisconsin-based company that supplies workers to clean food processing plants has paid a $1.5 million fine for illegally putting 102 children to work in hazardous jobs at meatpacking plants, including ones in Kansas and Nebraska.
Packers Sanitation Services paid the maximum civil penalty allowed under the Fair Labor Standards Act to the US Department of Labor (DOL) after an investigation found that children worked night shifts at 13 meatpacking plants in eight different states.
The jobs involved cleaning devices such as back saws and log splitters with caustic chemicals that could cause burns. At least three teenagers were injured.
“The child labor violations in this case were systemic and affected eight states, clearly pointing to a company-wide failure by Packers Sanitation Services at every level,” said Jessica Looman, deputy administrator of the Wage and Hour division of the DOL, in a written statement. “These children should never have been employed in meatpacking plants and that can only happen when employers fail to take responsibility to prevent child labor violations from happening.”
Another DOL official said Friday that Packers’ health systems flagged some workers as minors, but the company ignored those warnings and put the children to work anyway.
A spokesperson for Packers Sanitation said the company has a “zero tolerance policy” against hiring anyone under the age of 18, echoing a statement the company released in November when the allegations surfaced.
Packers Sanitation (PSSI) hired a law firm and conducted audits in response to the DOL complaint.
“Our audits and the DOL’s investigation confirmed that none of the individuals cited by the DOL as under the age of 18 work for the company today, and many had retired from employment with PSSI several years ago. The DOL does not has also identified any managers with knowledge of misconduct who are currently employed by PSSI,” the company said in a statement.
In a briefing with reporters on Friday, Looman said the DOL’s findings “represent a systemic failure in the entire PSSI organization.”
Packers Sanitation employed most of the child workers at a JBS Foods facility in Grand Island, Nebraska, where DOL investigators found 27 of the children working.
Packers put 26 children to work on a Cargill floor in Dodge City, Kansas, according to DOL.
Packers also had sons who worked at plants in Gibbon and Omaha, both in Nebraska.
Packers employs 17,000 workers nationwide, according to its website, and began in 1970 in Mt. Pleasant, Iowa.
The DOL investigation began in August after the agency received a referral from local law enforcement in Nebraska over possible child labor violations at the Grand Island plant. Investigators spoke to employees at a middle school and high school on Grand Island who said students showed up to class tired after working night shifts for JBS Foods.
In November, DOL obtained a temporary restraining order against Packers Sanitation, which barred the company from committing child labor violations.
In December, a federal judge in Nebraska issued a consent order requiring Packers Sanitation to comply with child labor laws at all of its locations and to hire an outside compliance specialist.