Labor Department fines food sanitation contractor $1.5M for child labor violations

More than 100 minors were illegally employed under hazardous conditions.

February 17, 2023, 6:40 PM

The Labor Department has detailed an investigation that found one of the nation's largest food safety sanitation services providers illegally employed more than 100 children in hazardous work conditions across 13 facilities in eight states.

DOL said its investigation into Packers Sanitation Services Inc., based in Wisconsin, found that at least 102 children ages 13-17 were illegally employed using hazardous chemicals and equipment such back saws, brisket saws, and head splitters -- often on overnight shifts.

The department said investigators learned that three minors suffered injuries while working for PSSI, including one 13-year-old who suffered chemical burns.

In this Nov. 2, 2022, file photo, workers carve up cuts of beef at the Greater Omaha Packing beef processing plant in Omaha, Neb.
Josh Funk/AP, FILE

Under the Fair Labor Standards Act, the department fined the company $15,138 for each minor illegally employed.

The total penalty paid by the company totaled $1,544,076 and is the maximum civil penalty allowed by federal law, DOL said.

Department of Labor headquarters in Washington, D.C.
U. Baumgarten via Getty Images, FILE

Overall, the company paid $1.5 million in civil penalties for the employment of 102 children in 13 facilities across Arkansas, Colorado, Indiana, Kansas, Minnesota, Nebraska, Tennessee, and Texas.

"Our investigation found Packers Sanitation Services' systems flagged some young workers as minors, but the company ignored the flags," said Wage and Hour Regional Administrator Michael Lazzeri in Chicago. When the Wage and Hour Division arrived with warrants, the adults -- who had recruited, hired, and supervised these children -- tried to derail our efforts to investigate their employment practices," Lazzeri said.

DOL spokesperson Rhonda Burke told ABC News that company managers directed department investigators to not take pictures or video, sat across from employees while they were being interviewed, remained in the area of interviews even after being asked to leave, instructed one minor to only stay for five minutes, and moved an item into the recycle bin of their computer after being asked for access to it.

"The child labor violations in this case were systemic and reached across eight states, and clearly indicate a corporate-wide failure by Packers Sanitation Services at all levels," Principal Deputy Administrator of the Wage and Hour Division Jessica Looman said in a statement. "These children should never have been employed in meat packing plants and this can only happen when employers do not take responsibility to prevent child labor violations from occurring in the first place."

The company's vice president of marketing, Gina Swenson, said in a statement Friday that the company has "a zero-tolerance policy against employing anyone under the age of 18," according to the AP.

As soon as PSSI became aware of the allegations, she said, it conducted audits and hired an outside law firm to help strengthen its policies. PSSI has also conducted additional training for hiring managers, including on spotting identity theft, she said.

None of the minors identified by federal investigators still work for PSSI, and the Department of Labor "has also not identified any managers aware of improper conduct that are currently employed" by the company, Swenson added, the AP reported.