LINCOLN, Neb. (DTN) -- A packer sanitation company employed at least 31 minors in what the U.S. Department of Labor is calling "hazardous occupations" to do overnight cleaning at JBS USA packing plants in Nebraska and Minnesota, as well as at Turkey Valley Farms in Marshall, Minnesota.
Prompted by an ongoing investigation, the DOL asked a federal court in Nebraska for a temporary national restraining order against the sanitation company.
According to the complaint filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Nebraska in Lincoln, Packers Sanitation Services Inc. LTD based in Wisconsin employed children ages 13 to 17 to perform jobs including cleaning power equipment during overnight shifts at JBS plants in Grand Island, Nebraska, and Worthington, Minnesota.
While the legal action was initiated in Nebraska, the DOL said in its complaint an "initial evidence review indicates PSSI may employ minor children under similar conditions at its other 400 operations across the country."
The DOL said it is conducting a full investigation into PSSI's labor practices, after receiving a tip from a law enforcement agency in Nebraska.
As part of its investigation, the DOL conducted surveillance, subpoenaed school records and interviewed "confidential" sources about minors working overnight shifts to clean a meat-processing facility, according to a brief filed in support of the restraining order.
"On Sept. 2, 2022, (DOL) witnessed multiple workers entering the JBS facility in Grand Island, Nebraska, during the PSSI overnight cleaning shift who appeared to be minors based on their stature and appearance," the brief said.
"On Oct. 3, 2022, (DOL) also conducted overnight surveillance outside the JBS facility in Worthington, Minnesota, again observing workers entering the facility who appeared to be minors."
The Department of Labor subpoenaed and received school records from the Grand Island, Nebraska, and Worthington, Minnesota, school districts for middle school and high school students "at risk of working overnight at the local meat-processing facilities," the brief said.
"(DOL) also subpoenaed records and interviewed two minors in Marshall, Minnesota, who worked for PSSI at a Turkey Valley Farms meat-processing facility."
The investigation found a 13-year-old suffered a "severe chemical burn" while cleaning at a JBS plant in Grand Island. According to the brief, two 14-year-old workers were interviewed by the DOL at the Grand Island plant, telling investigators they worked shifts of 11 p.m. to 5 a.m.
The Fair Labor Standards Act prohibits minors under the age of 14 from working and 14- and 15-year-old employees from working in non-agriculture jobs later than 9 p.m. from June 1 through Labor Day and past 7 p.m. the remainder of the year, according to the DOL.
In addition, those children are not allowed to work more than three hours on a school day, eight hours on a non-school day or more than 18 hours per week. The law also prohibits minors from operating motor vehicles, forklifts and using other hazardous equipment.
COMPANY DENIES ALLEGATIONS
PSSI provides contract sanitation services, chemical innovations, pest prevention and other services for about 700 food-processing facilities nationwide and employs about 17,000 workers.
The Department of Labor alleges in the court filing that PSSI "interfered with an investigation by intimidating minor workers to stop them from cooperating with investigators. PSSI also allegedly deleted and manipulated employment files."
In a statement to DTN, PSSI said the company prohibits the employment of anyone under age 18.
"PSSI has industry-leading, best-in-class procedures to confirm the identities of its employees -- including mandatory use of the government's E-Verify system for new hires, as well as extensive training, document verification, biometrics and multiple layers of audits," the company said.
"While rogue individuals could of course seek to engage in fraud or identity theft, we are confident in our company's strict compliance policies and will defend ourselves vigorously against these claims. 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.
"PSSI also worked with the DOL recently and successfully completed multiple audits with the agency that found no issues. PSSI will continue to cooperate with the DOL and will continue to enforce its absolute prohibition against employing anyone under the age of 18."
JBS USA did not respond to DTN's request for comment.
Turkey Valley Farms provided the following statement to DTN: "Turkey Valley Farms takes these allegations very seriously, and we are reviewing the matter internally. We expect all contractors to share our commitment to the health and safety of any individuals working in our facilities and to adhere to these principles that foster a safe work environment as well as to all applicable federal and state labor laws. 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."
INVESTIGATION BEGAN IN SUMMER
The DOL said its investigation at PSSI began on Aug. 24, 2022, when the Wage and Hour division received information alleging the company assigned minors to work in hazardous occupations. The DOL executed warrants for the company's operations at the three plants, its local offices and at PSSI's Keiler, Wisconsin, corporate office, according to a news release.
"Federal laws were established decades ago to prevent employers from profiting by putting children in harm's way," Michael Lazzeri, wage and hour regional administrator based in Chicago, said in a news release.
"Taking advantage of children, exposing them to workplace dangers -- and interfering with a federal investigation -- demonstrates Packers Sanitation Services Inc.'s flagrant disregard for the law and for the well-being of young workers."
Todd Neeley can be reached at email@example.com
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