Feds allege 11 more teens on payroll of slaughterhouse cleaning contractor

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

The U.S. Labor Department said Wednesday that investigators have found 11 additional minors hired to work overnight to clean slaughterhouses. The latest court filings bring the total number of teens alleged to have been employed by Packers Sanitation Services Inc., or PSSI, to 42, “a number which will likely only grow,” government attorneys wrote. 

Authorities say three of the newly-identified children had been hired to work at the JBS pork plant in Worthington, Minn.

Officials with the U.S. Labor Department’s Wage and Hour Division began investigating PSSI in August after receiving a tip from a law enforcement agency in Nebraska that minors were working third shift at the JBS beef plant in Grand Island.

PSSI, based in Kieler, Wis., has contracts to clean hundreds of meatpacking plants across the country. The investigation became public Nov. 9 when the Labor Department filed a civil suit in federal court in Lincoln, Neb.

The government initially alleged that PSSI hired at least 31 minors to work at three plants —including two in Minnesota. At the Grand Island plant, a 13-year-old was said to have suffered a serious chemical burn while using a caustic cleaning agent. 

In court documents filed Wednesday, the department said it identified “11 additional minor children hired by PSSI” to work at the plants in Worthington and Grand Island and a facility in Arkansas. The employees allegedly include a 14-year-old, three 15-year-olds, two 16-year-olds and five 17-year-olds.

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Investigators identified the children in the weeks since U.S. District Judge John Gerrard issued a restraining order that requires PSSI to cease its employment of minors.

Government attorneys contend in the new filings that PSSI “currently employs” four of the 11 children, including the three in Worthington. In its response filing Wednesday, PSSI disputed the claim.

“PSSI has confirmed that those four identified individuals actually are not current employees of PSSI, have not been working and have not been employed by PSSI for some time,” defense attorneys wrote. They added that the company “has taken extraordinary steps to ensure that it is in full compliance with the court’s order.” 

In its own statement earlier this month, JBS said it has “zero tolerance” for child labor and “immediately engaged an independent, third-party to audit sanitation providers” at all of its facilities.

After serving warrants last month at PSSI headquarters, plants in Grand Island and Worthington, as well as storefront recruiting offices in those cities, the Labor Department said it requested employment documents concerning 50 facilities that PSSI is contracted to clean. 

The government also subpoenaed a software vendor that PSSI hired to manage its employment data. PSSI is challenging that subpoena, and also argues that the court should not extend the restraining order by issuing a temporary injunction.

Attorneys for both sides are expected to present arguments next week in Lincoln.