The Labor Department said Friday that investigators found Packers Sanitation Services Inc. had employed more than 100 minors at meat processing facilities where they were cleaning dangerous industrial equipment using hazardous chemicals.
The investigation revealed that minors had worked at 13 facilities across eight states. Officials said they found at least three children had been injured while working for the company. The equipment they were cleaning included “back saws, brisket saws and head splitters,” according to the Labor Department.
Packers Sanitation Services agreed to pay $1.5 million in civil penalties as a result of the investigation, the agency said.
The probe began last year following complaints made involving plants in Minnesota and Nebraska owned by meatpacking giant JBS and the poultry processor Turkey Valley Farms. Packers Sanitation Services is a contractor for meat processors.
Jessica Looman, head of the Labor Department’s wage and hour division, called the child labor findings part of a “corporate-wide failure” at the company.
“These children should never have been employed in meatpacking plants,” Looman said.
Michael Lazzeri, a regional administrator for the wage and hour division, said Packers Sanitation Services had flagged certain workers as minors but “ignored” those flags. He also said adults who recruited and supervised the children at work had tried to “derail” the agency’s investigation when officials showed up with warrants.
“These children should never have been employed in meatpacking plants.”
The 13 meat facilities were located in Arkansas, Colorado, Indiana, Kansas, Minnesota, Nebraska, Tennessee and Texas. The companies operating the facilities included JBS, Turkey Valley, Tyson Food and Cargill, among others.
Lazzeri said the child laborers included four 13-year-olds, six 14-year-olds, 17 15-year-olds, 35 16-year-olds and 40 17-year-olds. The 102 children they cited were only those they were able to identify, he said.
“We can all do the math,” Lazzeri said. “With a systemic failure of this proportion it’s likely they had many more.”
The Labor Department looked at 55 meatpacking plants as part of its investigation. Packers Sanitation Services has approximately 450 contracts in the industry, officials said.
The company said in a statement that it cooperated with the investigation and has a “zero-tolerance policy” against child labor. Packers Sanitation Services said none of the children who were identified in the investigation still work for the company and some had left years ago. The company appeared to blame “identity theft” for the employment of minors.
“While we already have industry-leading procedures to help prevent identity theft – including mandatory use of the government’s E-Verify system for new hires, extensive training, multiple audits, and biometrics – we are fully committed to working with DOL to make additional improvements to enforce our prohibition of employing anyone under the age of 18,” the company said.
Some states are considering loosening their child labor laws amid a tight labor market that’s made it harder for employers to find workers at low wages. Looman, of the wage and hour division, said the agency had seen a 50% increase in child-labor violations since 2015.
Those violations include two types, Looman explained: Cases where children are working more hours than were legally allowed for minors, or more disturbing cases where they are performing hazardous tasks meant for adults.
“We are seeing children who are being employed where they never should be in the first place,” she said. “When we see those types of violations like [these], we are very much concerned about the exploitation of children.”