Amid federal probe, slaughterhouse cleaner agrees not to hire child labor

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

Updated 5:13 p.m.

A company accused of hiring dozens of minors to clean slaughterhouses, including two in Minnesota, has agreed to a permanent injunction barring it from hiring children while the federal probe into its hiring practices continues.

Federal investigators said Kieler, Wis.-based Packers Sanitation Services Inc. had hired at least 50 children to work overnight at meatpacking plants in Worthington, Minn., Marshall, Minn., Omaha, Neb., Grand Island, Neb., and Batesville, Ark.

In a lengthy court filing Friday, attorneys for the company, known as PSSI, pushed back on a request by the U.S. Labor Department to extend a temporary restraining order. Judge John Gerrard ordered PSSI on Nov. 10 to “immediately cease and refrain” from employing children in violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act.

About 36 hours ahead of a hearing in Lincoln, Neb., federal court, PSSI reversed course and agreed to a permanent injunction.

The deal requires the company to “review and enhance its existing policies and training materials” relating to child labor law, hire a “third-party consultant or compliance specialist,” and submit to “periodic site visits of at least six facilities of the compliance specialist’s choosing on a quarterly basis.”

PSSI also agreed to “impose sanctions, including termination and/or suspension” upon any managers responsible for any future child labor violations, and vowed to “not take any retaliatory action” against employees, including family members of minors who worked for the company.

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In a statement, a PSSI spokesperson said the company is pleased to have reached a resolution with regulators. “We have been crystal clear from the start: PSSI has a zero-tolerance policy against employing anyone under the age of 18 and fully shares DOL’s objective of ensuring it is followed to the letter at all local plants.”

PSSI does not have to pay fines as part of the settlement, but the Labor Department retains its right to complete its investigation, which could result in civil penalties.

In the Friday filing, PSSI attorneys laid out the company’s hiring policies in detail. They said PSSI “already has in place strong policies and practices” to ensure that employees are eligible to work in the United States and are at least 18 years old. Defense lawyers also pointed out that past audits by the federal Labor and Homeland Security departments did not result in citations or violations. 

PSSI said it “promptly terminated” the “two handfuls of alleged minors” that investigators identified, and accused regulators of pursuing “headline-grabbing” and “misleading gotcha claims.”

The Labor Department countered that PSSI’s policies are not robust. In their own filing Monday, regulators said that children who worked for PSSI had “frequent contact each shift with PSSI’s front-line supervisors,” who keep close track of minute details including the exact number of scrub pads and scrapers provided to and returned by each worker. 

According to one investigator who surveilled a PSSI hiring office in Grand Island, a company recruiter allegedly said she could “work something out” should an applicant not have documentation. 

PSSI’s online application asks prospective employees if they’re 18 or older, but the Labor Department alleges that an applicant’s failure to answer this question “does not preclude hire.” Investigators say at least six underage workers skipped the question entirely.