Wisconsin firm accused of using child labor in plants

Complaint says meatpacker employed 30 underage workers

- Karl Ebert

A Wisconsin industrial cleaning company is accused of illegally using child workers, including one who was 13, to clean meat processing plants in Minnesota and Nebraska.

According to a civil complaint filed by the U.S. Labor Department in the U.S. District Court of Nebraska, Packers Sanitation Services Inc. employed more than 30 children, ages 13 to 17, as cleaners in JBS USA meatpackin­g plants in Grand Island, Nebraska, and Worthingto­n, Minnesota, and at Turkey Valley Farms in Marshall, Minnesota. Federal labor law prohibits the use of workers under 18 on killing floors or on mechanized processing equipment because the work is a federally designated “hazardous occupation.”

The company is accused of violating federal labor laws by employing at least one worker under 14 to clean a slaughteri­ng and meatpackin­g plant, employing children under 15 to work overnight shifts during the school year and employing workers under 18 to work on the killing floor and clean power-driven machines.

The Labor Department said several underage employees were injured on the job, including a 13-year-old who was burned by caustic cleaning chemicals.

Packers Sanitation Services is based in Kieler, Wisconsin. The company describes itself as a “leading provider of food safety solutions.” According to its website, it employs 17,000 people to provide cleaning and other services to more than 700 food-processing plants.

In a statement, the company said it has an “absolute company-wide prohibitio­n against the employment of anyone under the age of 18 and zero tolerance for any violation of that policy – period.”

The company suggested that underage workers may have misreprese­nted their ages to gain employment.

The Labor Department said several underage employees were injured on the job.

“PSSI has industry-leading, bestin-class procedures to confirm the identities of its employees − including mandatory use of the Government’s Everify system for new hires, as well as extensive training, document verificati­on, biometrics, and multiple layers of audits,” the company said. “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 company said it has cooperated with investigat­ors.

A federal judge approved a temporary restrainin­g order prohibitin­g the company from employing anyone under 18 in hazardous roles and ordering it to preserve documents and not interfere with investigat­ors or attempt to influence workers to not cooperate with Labor Department investigat­ors.

In its request for the restrainin­g order, the Labor Department claimed that employees intimidate­d underage workers to discourage them from cooperatin­g with investigat­ors and that at least one employee deleted or manipulate­d employment records.

“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,” Michael Lazzeri, regional administra­tor for the Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division, said.

In a statement, Colorado-based JBS USA said it is launching its own “independen­t, third-party audit at all of our facilities to thoroughly evaluate this situation.”

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