In a complaint filed Wednesday that reads straight out of the Great Depression, the feds requested a temporary injunction on a massive sanitation company that’s accused of employing children as young as 13 in “dangerous” overnight shifts at food processing plants.
Packers Sanitation Services, known as PSSI, is under investigation by the Department of Labor after a credible tip revealed that at least 31 children were employed to clean industrial equipment, the complaint said.
At least two of the child workers suffered caustic chemical burns and other injuries while working on the “kill floor”—where cattle are butchered—at a plant operated by JBS Foods in Grand Island, Nebraska, the complaint said.
PSSI hires local workers throughout the country to sanitize industrial plants, like food processing facilities, often in overnight shifts that includes “work with and around dangerous machinery” and use of “strong chemicals,” according to an employee onboarding video on YouTube. The company’s website says it has 17,000 employees.
The Department of Labor said it discovered child laborers at the Grand Island location and at two Minnesota plants—one operated by JBS Foods in Worthington, the other by Turkey Valley Farms in Marshall.
None of the children mentioned in the complaint were identified, but the filing listed their working hours as far exceeding what’s permitted under federal law for minors. All of the minors involved were Spanish speakers, the complaint said.
The Fair Standards and Labor Act, enacted in 1938, established that minors under 14 be barred from working altogether. Teens aged 14 and 15 aren’t permitted to work past 9 p.m. in the summer and past 7 p.m. during the school year.
Labor laws are more lax for those 16 and older, but still ban working more than three hours on a school day and more than 18 hours a week. The legislation also bars children from operating with or around “hazardous” equipment.
The feds say these laws were brazenly ignored by PSSI, with one child worker—a 14-year-old student at Walnut Middle School in Grand Island—working from 11 p.m. to 5 a.m., five or six days a week between December and April.
Investigators said the child’s work ID matched their student ID. The complaint alleges the student regularly fell asleep in class and missed school because of a chemical injury sustained at the plant.
The child’s alleged injury isn’t a one-off. A report from March said three PSSI workers have died on the job since 2018, including one who was decapitated cleaning a chicken chiller. Injuries to four other people resulted in amputations, according to the report, commissioned by the watchdog group Private Equity Stakeholder Project.
Many of the children detailed in the Department of Labor’s complaint were tasked with cleaning machines used to cut meat, which included “electric knives” and “Grasselli skinners”—a tool used to skin fat from an animal’s carcass.
Investigators from the department’s Wage and Hour Division interviewed “several minors” during tours of each plant. They observed that “nearly all areas” of the plant contained “meat and bone cutting saws” or other dangerous power-driven machines not meant to be cleaned by children, the complaint said.
The feds alleged they found abhorrent conditions during the tour, with the Grand Island kill floor appearing to have cow fat covering the entire ground.
They also accused PSSI of trying to obstruct the investigation by retaliating against workers who spoke with investigators, and tossing out or manipulating employee files to cover its improper hiring record.
When investigators interviewed workers in person, the complaint said PSSI supervisors tried to stay close and listen in on the conversations, not moving until they were ordered to.
In a statement to The Daily Beast on Wednesday, however, the company rejected the Department of Labor’s claims, suggesting children may have lied about their age.
“While rogue individuals could of course seek to engage in fraud or identity theft, we are confident in our company’s strict compliance policies and will defend ourselves vigorously against these claims,” the statement said.
PSSI said it used “industry-leading, best-in-class procedures” to verify identities in hiring, which includes the U.S. Gov’s E-Verify system, document verification and biometrics.
The company also took exception to the feds’ claim that they’d obstructed an investigation, saying they were “surprised” by the filing. Their statement claimed PSSI had been working with federal investigators from the jump and cleared multiple audits in the past.
“PSSI will continue to cooperate with the DOL and will continue to enforce its absolute prohibition against employing anyone under the age of 18—period,” the statement said.
JBS Foods, who contracted PSSI to hire cleaners at two facilities listed in the complaint, did not respond to a request for comment. Les Goff, the general manager of the Turkey Valley Farms’ plant, told The Daily Beast he had “no comment at this time.”