The U.S. Department of Labor announced Friday that Packers Sanitation Services, Inc. (PSSI), paid over $1.5 million in civil penalties after the company was discovered to have more than 100 children working in dangerous jobs at meatpacking plants across the country.
PSSI, one of the country's largest cleaning services for food processing companies, started being investigated last summer, the DOL said.
While searching three meatpacking plants owned by JBS USA and Turkey Valley Farms in Nebraska and Minnesota, department officials found 31 underage workers as young as 13. PSSI's headquarters in Kieler, Wisc., was also searched.
The DOL ultimately found 13 plants in eight states had 102 underage workers – Arkansas, Colorado, Indiana, Kansas, Minnesota, Nebraska, Tennessee and Texas.
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The department then reviewed records for 55 locations where PSSI provided cleaning services and found even more violations involving children ages 13 to 17.
The Associated Press reported a temporary restraining order was obtained by the DOL in November and a permanent injunction in December, when PSSI entered into a consent judgment that committed them to stop employing minors illegally.
Jessica Looman, principal deputy administrator of the department’s Wage and Hour Division, told reporters Friday that children were found to be "cleaning dangerous power-driven equipment, like skull-splitters and razor-sharp bone saws." Looman added the underage workers were also using "caustic" cleaning chemicals.
At least three minors, including a 13-year-old, suffered burns from cleaning chemicals used at the JBS plant in Grand Island, Neb., The AP reported. This plant also had the most underage workers employed at 27.
Some of the children worked overnight shifts while attending school in the day, DOL Spokeswoman Rhonda Burke said.
Other locations with large groups of minors employed were the Cargill plant in Dodge City, Kansas, where 26 children worked, and a JBS plant in Worthington, Minnesota, where 22 minors worked.
A Tyson facility in Sedalia, Missouri, was also searched, but there were no verifiable violations found.
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PSSI paid $15,138 per minor, the maximum allowed under federal law. The amount resulted in a total of $1,544,076 in fines. Though the company was verified to have 102 underage workers, investigators believe many more went undiscovered.
Under December's consent judgment, PSSI must identify all minors and remove them from the dangerous work.
"Make no mistake, this is no clerical error, or actions of rogue individuals or bad managers," Looman said. "These findings represent a systemic failure across PSSI's entire organization to ensure that children were not working in violation of the law. PSSI's systems in many cases flagged that these children were too young to work, and yet they were still employed at these facilities."
In a statement on Friday, PSSI Vice President of Marketing Gina Swenson said the company has a "zero-tolerance policy against employing anyone under the age of 18."
Swenson added that the company immediately conducted audits and hired an outside law firm to help strengthen its policies once it became aware of the allegations. PSSI also required additional training for hiring managers, one focusing on how to spot identity theft.
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According to The AP, the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, representing meatpacking plant workers, called PSSI "one of the worst actors" in the industry.
"Paying a simple fine is not enough, their entire business model relies on the exploitation of workers, vicious union-busting tactics, and the violation of human rights," Marc Perrone, the union's international president, said in a statement.
Perrone called on the industry to use its power over contractors like PSSI to permanently end the exploitation of children.
When asked about the immigration status of the children, DOL solicitor Seema Nanda said the department only focuses on whether the employees are minors.
DOL officials also can't comment on if the plants will face criminal charges or if the children were victims of labor trafficking, said Michael Lazzeri, regional administrator of the department's Wage and Hour Division. Lazzeri said any detected trafficking is referred to other agencies.
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Looman said the Wage and Hour Division has seen around a 50% increase in child labor violations since 2018. The violations include minors working more hours than permitted in legal jobs, using equipment they shouldn't be while doing legal jobs, and working in places where they shouldn't be employed in the first place.
"Nobody under 18 should be working in a meat processing plant," she said.
PSSI, which employs about 17,000 people at more than 700 locations nationwide, said none of the minors identified by the DOL work for the company anymore. There are also no managers aware of the improper conduct currently employed by PSSI, Swenson said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.