Teens hired to work overnight as slaughterhouse cleaners, regulators allege

Person sprays water on stairs
In a photo included in a U.S. Department of Labor court filing, a worker at the JBS pork processing plant in Worthington uses a high-pressure hose to clean equipment.
U.S. Department of Labor

Updated Nov. 14, 2022 4:30 p.m.

Federal regulators say a Wisconsin cleaning contractor illegally hired minors to clean slaughterhouses. Among them were allegedly six teens who worked overnight shifts at two plants in southwestern Minnesota.

In a court filing this week, the U.S. Labor Department alleges that Packers Sanitation Services Inc., based in Kieler, Wis., employed at least 31 children, including some as young as 13, to clean equipment at three Midwestern meatpacking facilities.

The majority of the alleged violations were found at a JBS plant in Grand Island, Neb., but because PSSI operates in about 400 locations nationwide, “there is reason to believe Defendant’s practice of employing child labor is occurring throughout the country,” regulators wrote.

The government alleges that a child, first employed at the Grand Island plant at age 13, suffered a burn injury from caustic cleaning chemicals. Another child, 14, reportedly suffered similar injuries and fell asleep in class after working overnight.

According to the filing, PSSI hired a 16-year-old to clean meat grinders with a pressure hose on the 10 p.m. to 4 a.m. shift at the Turkey Valley Farms plant in Marshall, Minn. Investigators from the department’s Wage and Hour Division interviewed the teen, identified only as “Minor Child S” during a visit to Marshall Senior High School. The teen allegedly said they began working for PSSI at age 16.

Regulators also allege that the company employed a 17-year-old to clean the kill floor at the JBS pork plant in Worthington. PSSI hired the student at age 15. The teen said they cleaned conveyor belts and other equipment and “picked meat up from the floor.”

Investigators subpoenaed school records to confirm the teens’ dates of birth, and interviewed them in Spanish “before, during, and after” the execution of warrants on Oct. 13. The warrants allowed Labor Department officials to tour the plants, take photos and video of the operations, and obtain company documents.

In a statement, Turkey Valley Farms said it “takes these allegations very seriously” and it is “reviewing the matter internally.” It said all contractors are expected to share its “commitment to the health and safety of any individuals” working in its facilities, and to “adhere to these principles that foster a safe work environment as well as to all applicable federal and state labor laws.”

Turkey Valley Farms added: “We are closely monitoring the Department of Labor's actions with regard to Packers Sanitation Services Inc. and will take all appropriate action, based on the outcome of the investigation.”

In a separate statement, JBS Chief Ethics & Compliance Officer Michael Koenig said the company has “zero tolerance for child labor, discrimination, or unsafe working conditions” and has put in "interim measures to confirm the status of all sanitation personnel at our facilities" following an “independent, third-party” audit. Koenig’s statement goes on to say JBS is “assessing all options in connection with the provision of sanitation services for our Grand Island, Neb., and Worthington, Minn., facilities.”

In its own statement sent to MPR News on Monday, PSSI 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.”

Though government inspectors allege that “PSSI managers/supervisors attempted to thwart or tamper [with] the collection of evidence in multiple ways,” the company added in its statement: “We are also surprised the DOL has taken this action given PSSI’s Corporate office has been cooperating with their inquiry, producing extensive documents and responses,” and recently “completed multiple audits with the agency that found no issues.”

In response to the government’s complaint, U.S. District Judge John Gerrard issued a temporary restraining order that prohibits PSSI from employing children. Gerrard also ordered a PSSI corporate officer to appear at a federal court hearing in Lincoln, Neb. on Nov. 23.

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