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Company that put children to work in meatpacking plants in Kansas and Nebraska pays maximum fine

Fabrication - Ground Beef Room - Worker Interviewed by WHI Cardenas-MichmerhuizenRetrieved 10.13.22 (Taken at Grand Island, NE).PNG
Submitted
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U.S. Department of Labor
U.S. Department of Labor officials interviewed this worker at a ground beef floor at a JBS USA meat processing facility in Grand Island, Nebraska as part of an investigation into alleged child labor practices by Packers Sanitation Services.

Packers Sanitation Services, based in Wisconsin, paid $1.5 million to the U.S. Department of Labor after an investigation found it employed children in dangerous jobs in eight different states.

A Wisconsin-based company that provides workers to clean food processing plants paid a $1.5 million fine for illegally putting 102 children to work in dangerous jobs at meatpacking facilities, including those in Kansas and Nebraska.

Packers Sanitation Services paid the maximum civil penalty allowed under the Fair Labor Standards Act to the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) after an investigation found children working overnight shifts at 13 meatpacking plants in eight different states.

The jobs involved cleaning devices like back saws and head splitters with caustic chemicals that could cause burns. At least three teenagers suffered injuries.

“The child labor violations in this case were systemic and reached across eight states, and clearly indicate a corporate-wide failure by Packers Sanitation Services at all levels,” said Jessica Looman, deputy administrator of the DOL’s Wage and Hour Division, in a written statement. “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.”

Another DOL official said Friday that Packers Sanitation systems flagged some workers as minors, but the company ignored those warnings and put children to work anyway.

A Packers Sanitation spokesperson said the company has a "zero-tolerance policy" against employing people younger than 18 years old, echoing a statement the company gave 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 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. The DOL has also not identified any managers aware of improper conduct that 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 across PSSI's entire organization."

Packers Sanitation employed the most child workers at a JBS Foods facility in Grand Island, Nebraska, where DOL investigators found 27 minors working.

Packers put 26 children to work at a Cargill plan in Dodge City, Kansas, according to the DOL.

Packers also had children working at plants in Gibbon and Omaha, both in Nebraska.

Packers employs 17,000 workers nationally, according to its website, and got its start in 1970 in Mt. Pleasant, Iowa.

The DOL investigation started in August after the agency received a referral from local law enforcement in Nebraska about possible child labor violations at the Grand Island plant. Investigators talked to employees at a middle school and high school in Grand Island who reported students showing up for class tired after working overnight shifts for JBS Foods.

In November, the DOL obtained a temporary restraining order against Packers Sanitation, prohibiting the company from committing child labor violations.

A federal judge in Nebraska entered a consent order in December requiring Packers Sanitation to comply with child labor laws at all its locations and employ an outside compliance specialist.

Steve Vockrodt is the investigative editor for the Midwest Newsroom. You can reach him at svockrodt@stlpr.org.
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