Food Sanitation fined for illegal child labor in Nebraska

This story was originally published in the Nebraska Examiner.

A company in charge of cleaning up meatpacking plants across the country has paid $1.5 million in administrative fines for having children as young as 13 work in hazardous conditions.

The fine, announced Friday by the U.S. Department of Labor, follows the agency’s investigation 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 aged 13 to 17 spent night shifts cleaning equipment such as head splitters, back saws and sternum saws and were exposed to hazardous chemicals such as ammonia. According to the Occupational Health and Safety Administration, risks inside meatpacking plants also include diseases caused by contact with feces and blood. Three of at least 102 children were injured while working for Packers Sanitation Services, which is based in Keeler, Wisconsin.

Michael Lazzeri, regional administrator for payroll and hours, said the food sanitation business was ignoring flags in its own system that workers were underage.

“When the Payroll and Hours department arrived with the warrants, the adults who recruited, hired and supervised these children attempted to derail our efforts to investigate their recruitment practices,” Lazzeri said in a press release.

The department’s Payroll and Hours Division began investigating these issues in August 2022. In November, the department filed a complaint with the Nebraska U.S. District Court. The agency’s investigation found that the children worked in factories in Gibbon, Grand Island and Omaha. Packers Sanitation Services was fined $408,726 for employing 27 minors at a 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 total of $1.5 million represents a fine of $15,138 for each child employed, the maximum civil monetary penalty allowed by federal law.

In December, the company agreed to comply with labor laws and hire a third-party professional to provide child labor compliance training and facility surveillance for three years, among other requirements, as part of a ruling and ruling by the U.S. District Court of Nebraska.

The number of children working in violation of child labor laws has been on the rise since 2018, with the exception of 2021 during the pandemic, according to the Department of Labor. Last year, data showed 835 cases of child labor violations involving 3,876 children.

The increase in cases comes as some states are considering easing child labor protections.

The Iowa bill provides for exemptions from state law that would prohibit minors aged 14 to 17 from working in more hazardous industries such as roofing, mining, and meatpacking if authorized by the state Department of Education and Workforce Development as part of a “labor job.” based learning or work-related program administered by a school or employer,” according to the Des Moines Register. It will also allow minors under the age of 16 to drive themselves to work in some circumstances, and children under 16 to work longer hours. A subcommittee of the Iowa Senate recommended that the bill be passed on February 9.

Another bill passed in Minnesota would remove the ban on construction work for 16- and 17-year-olds. In Ohio, lawmakers are proposing to allow minors to work longer hours.

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