OMAHA, Neb. (AP) — A Wisconsin company that cleans hundreds of meat processing plants across the country is defending itself against allegations that it employed more than two dozen minors working night shifts to clean massive saws, grinders and other dangerous processing equipment at three slaughterhouses.
Labor Department officials said in court documents they believe Packers Sanitation Services Inc. may have underage workers at other plants, but investigators have only just begun going through thousands of pages of personnel files at plants besides those in Nebraska and Minnesota, where they confirmed that teens were working through the night to sanitize slaughterhouses before they go back to high school in the morning.
A federal judge in Lincoln, Nebraska has already issued a temporary injunction barring the company from employing minors and interfering with the Department of Labor’s investigation. The company will argue at a court hearing next month that there is no reason for a judge to make that order permanent, as PSSI officials say they are cooperating with the investigation and already prohibit them from employing anyone under the age of 18.
On Monday, a judge ordered the government to give the company some more details about the investigation ahead of next month’s hearing. The company says it employs about 17,000 people at more than 700 locations across the country, making it one of the largest companies cleaning food processing plants.
Gina Swenson, PSSI’s Vice President of Marketing, said the company “has an absolute company-wide prohibition against employing anyone under the age of 18 and has zero tolerance for any violation of that policy — period.”
Swenson also said company officials cooperated with the investigation. But according to court documents, the labor department says local managers “tried to obstruct employee interviews” at JBS plants in Grand Island, Nebraska and Worthington, Minnesota, as well as at a Turkey Valley Farms plant in Marshall, Minnesota. Researchers said they also saw managers delete WhatsApp messages and computer files.
In one case, investigators said they found text messages sent by a manager at the Worthington plant to prospective employees discussing the use of fake identification documents to secure a job at PSSI.
Researchers say they have been able to confirm that at least 31 children as young as 13 have worked for PSSI by talking to them and comparing time clock photos and employment data with photos and information in local school records.
Officials from JBS and Turkey Valley Farms say they are monitoring the situation with PSSI and will consider taking action against the company based on the outcome of the investigation.
“We take seriously the allegations against PSSI, which if true, constitute a clear violation of our ethics policy,” Michael Koenig, JBS’ chief ethics and compliance officer, said in a statement. He said JBS is taking steps to verify the status of all sanitation workers in its factories and that the company does not tolerate child labor.
In addition to the plants in Nebraska and Minnesota, investigators also seized documents from a Tyson Foods plant in Sedalia, Missouri, but they did not identify any workers from there as minors in the court documents.
Tyson spokesman Derek Burleson said the company is aware of the allegations against PSSI and is cooperating with investigators. Burleson said Tyson expects its suppliers to follow the same labor laws as they do to ensure that minors are not hired, and is working with them to ensure that is the case.
Among the underage workers that investigators confirmed was a 13-year-old who suffered severe chemical burns from the caustic chemicals used to clean the JBS Grand Island plant each night.
Investigators said in court documents that some of the teens they found working for PSSI told them that “everyone there knew” they were minors, and in one case, a search of a government database found an employee’s age to be 129. used to be. -old when their social security number was checked.
PSSI asked the court to order investigators to share more details about that case and identify the children found to ensure that “rogues” don’t find ways to circumvent the company’s efforts to prevent people under the age of 18 from being accepted.
But the judge ordered only limited information to be released after the Labor Department argued that PSSI already has all the information it needs to identify any minors in its own company records.
“It is not the responsibility of the secretary to teach defendants how to search their own records to find the minor children they employ. Further, PSSI only needs to consult their own managers who work onsite at these facilities to conduct their own due diligence,” the labor department said in court documents.
The company and investigators are due in court on Dec. 7 to discuss whether a federal judge should issue a preliminary injunction in the case.