A Wisconsin company that cleans hundreds of meatpacking plants across the country is defending itself against allegations that it employed more than two dozen minors who worked night shifts cleaning massive saws, grinding machines and other dangerous processing equipment in three slaughterhouses.
Labor Department officials said in court filings that they believe Packers Sanitation Services Inc. may be employing underage workers at other plants, but investigators have only just begun combing through thousands of pages of employee records at plants other than those in Nebraska. and Minnesota, where they confirmed there were teenagers. working all night disinfecting slaughterhouses before heading back to high school in the morning.
A federal judge in Lincoln, Nebraska, has already issued a temporary order barring the company from employing minors and interfering with the Labor Department’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 because PSSI officials say they are cooperating with the investigation and already prohibit hiring anyone under 18.
A judge on Monday ordered the government to give the company some more details about its investigation before a hearing next month. The company says it employs about 17,000 people working at more than 700 locations across the country, making it one of the largest companies to clean food processing plants.
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PSSI’s vice president of marketing, Gina Swenson, said the company “has an absolute company-wide prohibition against employment of anyone under the age of 18 and zero tolerance for any violation of that policy, period.”
Swenson also said that corporate officials have been cooperating with the investigation. But according to court documents, the Labor Department says local managers “attempted to obstruct employee interviews” at JBS plants in Grand Island, Nebraska and Worthington, Minnesota, as well as a Turkey Valley Farms plant in Marshall, Minnesota. Investigators said they also saw managers deleting WhatsApp messages and computer files.
In one case, investigators said they found text messages a manager at the Worthington plant sent to prospective employees who were discussing the use of fake identification documents to secure a job with PSSI.
Investigators say they have been able to confirm that at least 31 children as young as 13 have been working for PSSI by talking to them and comparing photos of watches and employment data with photos and information in local school records.
JBS and Turkey Valley Farms officials 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, represent a clear violation of our ethical policies,” Michael Koenig, JBS’s director of ethics and compliance, said in a statement. He said that JBS is taking steps to check the status of all sanitation workers at its plants and that the company will not tolerate child labor.
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In addition to the Nebraska and Minnesota plants, investigators also seized records from a Tyson Foods plant in Sedalia, Missouri, but did not identify any workers there as minors in court documents. Tyson officials did not immediately respond to questions about the investigation Tuesday.
The underage workers investigators confirmed included a 13-year-old boy who suffered a severe chemical burn from the caustic chemicals used to clean the JBS Grand Island plant every 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 showed that the age of a employee was 129 years old. -of age when his Social Security number was verified.
PSSI asked the court to order investigators to share more details about that case and identify the children it found to help ensure that “rogue individuals” do not find ways to circumvent the company’s efforts to avoid hiring minors. of 18 years.
But the judge only ordered limited information released after the Labor Department argued that PSSI already has all the information it needs to identify any minors in its own company documents.
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“It is not the Secretary’s responsibility to teach defendants how to search their own documents to find the minor children they employ. Furthermore, PSSI only needs to consult its own managers who work on the ground at these establishments to carry out its own due diligence,” Labor said. department said in court documents.
The company and investigators are due to appear in court on December 7 to discuss whether a federal judge should issue a preliminary injunction in the case.