Judge denies motion to lift temporary restraining order on Madelia food processor

A Tony Downs Foods employee straightens out
A Tony Downs Foods employee straightens out a Now Hiring banner in front of the company building in Madelia, Minn., on Thursday.
Jackson Forderer for MPR News

District Court Judge Stephen Ferrazzano declined to strike down a temporary restraining order filed against southwest Minnesota meat processor Tony Downs for allegedly employing children as young as 13 to operate meat grinders, ovens and a forklift. 

In a Watonwan County courtroom, attorneys for Downs Food Group argued the company didn’t know it had people younger than 18 working in its plant until reading about it in a news release. 

The state complaint alleges at least eight children younger than 18 were working overnight or shifts ending in the early morning hours. 

Two were identified as 14 and 15 and six are 16 and 17. According to the Minnesota Department of Labor and Industry investigators, the 14-year-old started working at the plant when just 13.

Court documents show the investigation started in late January. DLI investigators  visited Tony Downs after receiving a complaint. 

Company pushes back

While the company says it plans to fully cooperate with the DLI, it also alleged it didn’t know what the investigation was about until reading about it in a news release about the restraining order on Wednesday. Attorneys for the company also said the state's investigators sat on the information for several weeks. 

Attorney Steve Schleicher, known to many as a prosecutor in the Derek Chauvin trial, represents Downs Food Group. He requested the names of the eight minors and also requested that the temporary restraining order be dissolved. He argued it's based on what the company believes were subjective assessments on employees’ physical appearances and not on other criteria developed with the DLI. 

“What is necessary is that this court order discovery, order the parties to continue to cooperate and work together to find some workable, realistic solutions to identify any individuals who could be at that plant working under age,” he said “Tony Downs wants to do that and has no interest, no interest in maintaining employment for individuals who are under age.”

The company attorneys also argued that the temporary restraining order does nothing to actually counter child labor, an aim the company says it shares. 

Due Diligence

In response attorneys for the state argued it did its due diligence in investigating a complaint. The lawyers said they confirmed the identities of the minors by walking through Tony Downs’ employment records, and then comparing them with educational records. They got those when investigators met with school officials who were concerned about the students’ academic and physical wellbeing.  

Assistant Attorney General Elizabeth Johnston, representing the Minnesota Department of Labor and Industry Downs Group staff had not been diligent in vetting the ages of job applicants.

“Looking at a person and identifying that they may appear young, and therefore it merits some scrutiny, is just a beginning common sense step,” she said. “The fact that the department uses the methods it did to reach its conclusions does not make it the only way to do it. And it doesn't mean that Tony downs didn't need to have in place both policies and practices that were actually effective. And they obviously weren't.”

After leaving the temporary restraining order in place Judge Ferrazzano set another hearing for April 6.