A Wisconsin-based food sanitation company paid $1.5 million in financial penalties for illegally employing more than 100 children federal investigators say were exposed to dangerous conditions.
At least 102 minors between the ages of 13 and 17 worked for Grant County-based Packers Sanitation Services Inc., or PSSI, one of the country’s biggest food safety sanitation companies, according to the U.S. Department of Labor Wage and Hour Division.
At a media briefing Friday, Department of Labor officials said the children worked overnight shifts, using hazardous chemicals to clean saws and other high-risk equipment at 13 meat processing facilities in eight states. At least three were injured while working, including a 13-year-old who suffered chemical burns.
The U.S. District Court of Nebraska entered a consent order and judgment on Dec. 6 requiring the company to comply with federal child labor laws. As part of the court order, PSSI paid a $1.5 million fine on Thursday, which amounts to $15,138 for each employee under the age of 18.
Solicitor of Labor Seema Nanda said the court order was critical to completing the investigation and preventing the company from continuing to utilize child labor.
"The consent order and judgment required PSSI to terminate the employment of all minors, hire a third party consultant to monitor their compliance and allowed the Wage and Hour Division to finish its investigation within 90 days," she said. "The consent order and judgment also prohibited any retaliatory action against employees, including family members of minor children employed by PSSI."
The Department of Labor launched an investigation into allegations of child labor last August, and filed a civil complaint against the company in November. Later that month, a Nebraska judge ordered PSSI to comply with the federal investigation and to stop employing minors.
Jessica Looman, principal deputy Wage and Hour administrator, said the company's use of underage workers was systemic and illustrates a company-wide failure to follow labor laws.
"PSSI's system, in many cases, flagged that these children were too young to work, and yet they were still employed at these facilities," she said. "Employers must take responsibility to ensure that their employees are of legal age to work, and we must all recognize that there are just some jobs that are too dangerous for our children."
While federal investigators were able to identify 102 children who worked for PSSI, officials said they believe the company hired more minors who weren’t found through the investigation.
To comply with the court order, federal officials say PSSI must identify those children and remove them from employment.
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"I don't want to speculate as far as how many could have been working at any particular time, but we can all do math," said Michael Lazzeri, Midwest regional administrator for the Wage and Hour Division. "We can see that the employer has 450 contracts across the country, and with a systemic failure of something of this proportion, it is likely that they have many more (underage workers)."
In a statement, PSSI said it no longer employs minors identified in the investigation, and said many had left PSSI years ago.
"Our company has a zero-tolerance policy against employing anyone under the age of 18 and fully shares the Department of Labor’s objective of ensuring full compliance at all locations," a company spokesperson said. "We are fully committed to working with the Department of Labor to make additional improvements to enforce our prohibition of employing anyone under the age of 18."
PSSI is far from the only company to violate child labor laws in recent years. Since 2018, the Department of Labor has seen a 50 percent increase in child labor violations nationally, Looman said.
She said those violations can vary from children working more hours than allowed under law, using specific types of prohibited equipment or working in industries that they shouldn’t be.
"We are very much concerned about the exploitation of children and really want to reiterate that it is the employer’s responsibility to maintain good records and to ensure that they are never employing children in violation of the law," Looman said. "We are seeing an increase, and we are, again, prioritizing this and making sure that we are incredibly diligent in our enforcement around child labor violations."