A leading US food sanitation company has employed dozens of children as young as 13 to work in dangerous conditions during long graveyard shifts, federal officials said.
Packers Sanitation Services allegedly used child labor in three meatpacking plants across two states, according to the Labor Department.
The DOL asked a federal court to issue a nationwide temporary restraining order and injunction against the company over its alleged crimes at plants in Grand Island, Nebraska, Worthington, Minnesota and Marshall, Minnesota.
Over 30 young employees, all under the age of 18, were tasked with cleaning dangerous powered equipment during overnight shifts, according to the department.
Several, including a 13-year-old worker, suffered “serious” chemical burns, according to a federal lawsuit against the company.
Many of the underage workers were responsible for cleaning heavy-duty tools on a factory kill floor, including beef dehorners, brisket saws and a “190-pound saw used to split cow carcasses in half length-wise,” the suit says.
After finishing their shifts early in the morning, several children went directly to their middle schools, where they routinely fell asleep in class, the filing states.
Many of the children worked between 11 p.m. to 5 a.m. or 7 a.m., the document states. The young workers worked five or six days per week, with several clocking in seven days of work per week.
The investigation was launched in August after a “credible” source came forward alleging the company employed minors in hazardous conditions, the DOL said.
Upon learning of the investigation, PSSI managers “attempted to thwart or tamper the collection of evidence in multiple ways,” the filing states.
The supervisors allegedly told investigators they weren’t allowed to take photographs and tried to block investigators from interviewing the workers in addition to deleting documents containing evidence.
PSSI has denied the allegations, telling NBC News it “has an absolute company-wide prohibition against the employment of anyone under the age of 18 and zero tolerance for any violation of that policy — period.”
“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,” a spokesperson said.
Federal law prohibits children under the age of 14 from working in any capacity. Children aged 14 and 15 are only allowed to work before 7 p.m. during the school year, and no later than 9 p.m. in the summer. Children cannot work more than three hours on school days, eight hours on a non-school day or more than 18 hours per week.
It is also illegal for children to operate the dangerous equipment the PSSI was allegedly entrusting the kids to use.
“Federal laws were established decades ago to prevent employers from profiting by putting children in harm’s way,” said Wage and Hour Regional Administrator Michael Lazzeri in Chicago.
“Taking advantage of children, exposing them to workplace dangers – and interfering with a federal investigation – demonstrates Packers Sanitation Services Inc.’s flagrant disregard for the law and for the well-being of young workers.”