This story was originally published in the Nebraska Examiner.
A company responsible for cleaning meatpacking plants across the country has paid $1.5 million in civil penalties for making children as young as 13 work in dangerous conditions.
The fine, announced Friday by the U.S. Department of Labor, followed an investigation by the agency into Packers Sanitation Services Inc. at 13 plants in eight states, including Nebraska, Arkansas, Colorado, Indiana, Kansas, Minnesota and Tennessee. At three meatpacking plants — in Nebraska, Kansas and Minnesota — Packers Sanitation employed more than 20 children.
The department said children, ranging from 13 to 17 years old, spent overnight shifts cleaning equipment such as head splitters, back saws and brisket saws and were exposed to dangerous chemicals such as ammonia. The risks inside meatpacking plants also include diseases from exposure to feces and blood, according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Three children out of at least 102 kids sustained injuries while working for Packers Sanitation Services, which is based in Kieler, Wisconsin.
Michael Lazzeri, wage and hour regional administrator for the department, said the food sanitation business ignored flags from its own system that the workers were minors.
“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 in a press release.
The department’s Wage and Hour division started investigating these issues in August 2022. In November, the department filed a complaint in the U.S. District Court of Nebraska. The agency’s investigation found that children were working at plants in Gibbon, Grand Island and Omaha. Packers Sanitation Services was fined $408,726 for employing 27 minors at the JBS Foods plant in Grand Island.
Packers was also fined $333,036 for employing children at a JBS plant in Worthington, Minnesota, and $393,588 for having children work at a Cargill plant in Dodge City, Kansas.
The $1.5 million total represents a fine of $15,138 for each child employed — the maximum civil money penalty allowed by federal law.
In December, the company agreed to comply with labor law and hire a third party specialist to provide child labor compliance training and monitor facilities for three years, among other requirements, as part of the U.S. District Court of Nebraska’s consent order and judgment.
The number of children working in violation of child labor laws has been on the increase since 2018, with the exception of 2021 during the pandemic, according to Department of Labor data. Last year, the data showed 835 child labor violation cases involving 3,876 children.
The increase in cases comes as some states are considering loosening child labor protections.
An Iowa bill would provide exceptions to state law prohibiting minors aged 14 to 17 from working in more dangerous industries, such as roofing, mining and meatpacking, as long as the state Workforce Development and Department of Education allowed it as part of a “work-based learning or a school or employer-administered, work-related program,” reported the Des Moines Register. It also would let minors under 16 drive themselves to work in some circumstances and let children under 16 work longer hours. An Iowa Senate subcommittee recommended passage of the bill on Feb. 9.
Another bill, in Minnesota, would remove a prohibition on 16- and 17-year-olds from working in construction. In Ohio, lawmakers are proposing that minors be allowed to work longer hours.