The Department of Labor has detailed an investigation that found one of the country’s largest providers of food safety sanitation services illegally employed more than 100 children in hazardous working conditions across 13 facilities in eight states.
The DOL said its investigation of Packers Sanitation Services Inc., based in Wisconsin, found at least 102 children ages 13-17 were illegally employed using hazardous chemicals and equipment such as back saws, chest saws and head splitters — often on night shifts.
The department said investigators learned three minors were injured while working for PSSI, including a 13-year-old who suffered chemical burns.
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, the DOL said.
In total, the company paid $1.5 million in civil penalties for employing 102 children in 13 facilities across Arkansas, Colorado, Indiana, Kansas, Minnesota, Nebraska, Tennessee and Texas.
“Our investigation found that Packers Sanitation Services’ systems flagged some young workers as minors, but the company ignored the flags,” said Chicago Wage and Hour Officer Michael Lazzeri. When the Wage and Hour Department 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 spokeswoman Rhonda Burke told ABC News that company managers instructed department investigators not to take photos or video, sat across from employees while being interviewed, remained in the interview area even after being asked to leave, instructed a minor to stay for only five minutes , and moved an item to the Recycle Bin on the computer after being prompted for access to it.
“The child labor violations in this case were systemic and reached across eight states, and clearly indicate a company-wide failure by Packers Sanitation Services at every level,” Jessica Looman, deputy director of the Wage and Hour Division, said in a statement. “These children should never have been employed in a meatpacking plant, and this can only happen when employers do not take responsibility to prevent child labor violations from happening 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 hiring 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 the policy. PSSI has also conducted additional training for hiring managers, including on detecting identity theft, she said.
None of the minors identified by federal investigators still work for PSSI, nor has the Labor Department “identified any managers aware of inappropriate conduct who are currently employed” by the company, Swenson added, the AP reported.