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Federal investigation into child labor violations at meatpacking plants expands into Missouri

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.
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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.

The U.S. Department of Labor is investigating the potentially illegal use of children working dangerous jobs at meatpacking and slaughtering facilities in at least three states, and perhaps more.

The Department of Labor filed a complaint in federal court in Nebraska last week to stop Wisconsin-based Packers Sanitation Services Inc. from committing what the agency called “oppressive child labor” violations. Meat processing companies hire Packers Services to clean its plants.

While minors can hold certain jobs, federal regulations prohibit them from working in positions deemed “particularly hazardous” and detrimental to their health and well-being.

The Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division launched its investigation into Packers Sanitation earlier this year after getting a tip from law enforcement about a child suffering from chemical burns while working overnight shifts at a JBS USA’s meatpacking plant in Grand Island, Nebraska.

Tired students

An investigator spoke to school officials at Walnut Middle School and Grand Island High School who said it was “common knowledge” that school children worked at JBS and they were concerned about the students working at the plant, in part because the students came to school tired from working overnight shifts.

The investigation determined that a total of 31 children between the ages of 13 and 17 have worked for PSSI at the JBS USA plants in Grand Island, Nebraska and in Worthington, Minnesota, as well as a Turkey Valley Farms plant in Marshall, Minnesota.

“Taking advantage of children, exposing them to workplace dangers — and interfering with a federal investigation — demonstrate Packers Sanitation Services Inc.’s flagrant disregard for the law and for the well-being of young workers,” said Michael Lazzeri, the Wage and Hour Regional Administrator in Chicago, in a written statement.

The Midwest Newsroom has also learned that the Department of Labor also started an investigation into Packers Sanitation at a Tyson Foods plant in Sedalia, Missouri.

According to a search warrant application that a federal magistrate judge in Missouri unsealed last week, Department of Labor investigators conducted overnight surveillance at Tyson’s Sedalia plant and saw people entering the plant that the investigators believed could be children.

The Department of Labor obtained a separate search warrant of Packers Sanitation’s corporate offices in Kieler, Wisconsin, where it obtained the company’s personnel records. An initial review of those records caused concern that PSSI may employ minors at other locations as well. A Department of Labor employee said in a declaration that clock-in records at eight different meat processing plants revealed photographs of workers who may be minors.

A PSSI spokesperson said the company prohibits employing anyone younger than 18 years of age and has what it called “industry-leading” procedures to confirm the identities of its workers.

“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,” a PSSI spokesperson said in an email.

PSSI, which employs about 17,000 workers, added that it has cooperated with the Department of Labor investigation.

“PSSI also worked with the DOL recently and successfully completed multiple audits with the agency that found no issues,” the spokesperson said. “PSSI will continue to cooperate with the DOL and will continue to enforce its absolute prohibition against employing anyone under the age of 18.”

'Zero Tolerance'

In court documents, the Department of Labor accused PSSI of interfering with its investigation by denying investigators access to documents and obstructing interviews with workers.

Michael Koenig, chief ethics and compliance officer for JBS USA, said the company took the allegations against PSSI seriously and, if true, would represent a violation of the meat company’s ethics policies.

“We are immediately launching an independent, third-party audit at all of our facilities to thoroughly evaluate this situation,” Koenig said in a statement. “JBS has zero tolerance for child labor, discrimination or unsafe working conditions for anyone working in our facilities. We expect and contractually require our partners to adhere to the highest ethical principles as outlined in our Business Associate Code of Conduct.”

The Department of Labor opened its investigation on Aug. 24 after its Wage and Hour Division received a referral from a law enforcement agency about possible child labor violations at the JBS USA plant in Grand Island, Nebraska.

On Oct. 13, the Department of Labor showed up at the JBS plant with a search warrant. As the investigators toured the facility, they noticed workers who looked like children scrubbing equipment on the kill floor.

Investigators interviewed children they found working at the plant. The interviews were conducted in Spanish because the children did not speak fluent English.

The Department of Labor did not directly address a question about the immigration status of the children interviewed during the investigation.

“The U.S. Department of Labor is committed to ensure all workers in the United States are protected by federal laws such as the child labor law, regardless of immigration status,” a department spokesperson said in an email.

The interviews produced accounts of the working conditions experienced by the minors at the Grand Island, Nebraska plant.

One child who was 13 when they started working for PSSI reported sustaining chemical burns from the cleaning materials used at the JBS plant, according to court records.

Another child who was 14 when they started working for PSSI, said they cleaned machinery used to cut meat during overnight work shifts. The child also suffered injuries from chemical burns.

Another 17 year old reported working overnight shifts longer than six hours about six or seven days a week, cleaning machines on the kill floor by hand.

A Nebraska judge scheduled a hearing for Nov. 23 to consider a preliminary injunction against PSSI.

This story comes from the Midwest Newsroom, an investigative journalism collaboration including IPR, KCUR 89.3, Nebraska Public Media News, St. Louis Public Radio and NPR.

Copyright 2022 KCUR 89.3. To see more, visit KCUR 89.3.

Steve Vockrodt