Packers Sanitation Services Inc. on Tuesday agreed to new government oversight to settle a lawsuit brought by the U.S. Department of Labor after the company was accused of hiring dozens of teenagers to clean slaughterhouses in Minnesota and two other states.
The Wisconsin-based firm, which provides janitorial services in meatpacking plants across the country, will allow an outside consultant to make at least six periodic site visits every quarter for the next three years. The consultant will also be given access to company hiring records.
In a consent order signed by U.S. District Judge John Gerrard in Nebraska, the Labor Department indicated it will continue to investigate the allegations and may yet impose a financial penalty against PSSI. The settlement takes the place of a temporary injunction and closes the door on court proceedings.
"We are pleased to have reached a resolution with the Department of Labor inquiry into this matter," PSSI said in a statement. "We have been crystal clear from the start: PSSI has a zero-tolerance policy against employing anyone under the age of 18 and fully shares DOL's objective of ensuring it is followed to the letter at all local plants."
Federal authorities had said that seven teenagers worked for PSSI at JBS Pork in Worthington, Minn., and another two at Turkey Valley in Marshall, Minn. Both the Brazilian-owned JBS and Turkey Valley said they were unaware that minors worked in their facilities.
While certain minors, especially those 14 and up, are able to work consistent, narrow windows of time during the school year, federal law considers slaughterhouses hazardous and prohibits teens from working in them.
"The Wage and Hour Division will complete its investigation and ensure children are not working in violation of federal laws at this company or at others," said Wage and Hour Regional Administrator Michael Lazzeri in Chicago.
The department last month filed the lawsuit against PSSI in Nebraska following investigations of two meatpacking facilities, including the JBS Pork facility in Worthington. PSSI said it suspended with pay an employee who, court records suggest, had been illegally facilitating fabricated identification documents to underage workers in Worthington.
After interviewing employees during the Oct. 13 site visits, including at a JBS facility in Grand Island, Neb., the government investigators checked employees' identifications against local school records. In a legal filing Monday, Labor Department attorneys alleged PSSI had employed at least 50 minors across five facilities in three states.
"These are 'two handfuls' PSSI dismisses in its brief, as if the lives of fifty minor children is a mere blip in its business operations," Labor Department attorneys said in the filing.
Its investigation commenced late this summer, when law enforcement authorities in Nebraska forwarded to the Labor Department a potential child abuse case involving a 14-year-old with chemical burns. Authorities later cited identification records from a local middle school, saying PSSI hired the individual at age 13 to work overnight in the Grand Island facility.
After conducting surveillance and securing subpoenas from a federal judge, Labor Department investigators arrived just before midnight on Oct. 13 at both the Worthington and Grand Island facilities. They seized company phones and interviewed PSSI employees.
Investigators later searched the PSSI headquarters in Keiler, Wis., and its hiring offices in Grand Island and Worthington, securing more records, including an employee list.
Sometimes called "third shift" at meatpacking sites, PSSI employees clean carcass-cutting equipment. Court records described employees using cleaning chemicals and running high-pressure hoses while standing in a meaty sluice.
PSSI is an industry leader in janitorial services for meatpacking facilities, counting over 15,000 employees at more than 400 sites across the country. According to court records, Labor Department officials have cited PSSI for failure to pay some employees' back wages at sites from Iowa to Arizona to Arkansas. The company had not previously been accused of child labor abuses.
Federal labor law specifies a company can be fined $11,000 for each underage employee it hires.Gerrard's consent order leaves open the possibility the company could still face a monetary penalty.
In court, PSSI never disputed that it hired minor employees. But the company had fought the Labor Department's charge that its employees impeded federal investigators. It also blamed rogue employees, who appeared to skirt company strictures against hiring minors to clean slaughterhouses.
"The Secretary's own pleadings represent that the alleged minors at issue misrepresented their age," PSSI's attorneys wrote in a filing last week.
PSSI's attorneys also called attention to an alleged misrepresentation by the Labor Department in a photo that purported to show an underage employee in personal protective gear, crouching under equipment to clean and glancing back at the camera.
The company issued a declaration from a PSSI employee in Grand Island who said she was the person in the photo and is 34 years old.
A spokesperson for the Labor Department did not respond to a question from the Star Tribune about the photo. A PSSI spokeswoman said the filing "speaks for itself."
The consent order came a day ahead of a scheduled hearing. As part of the order, PSSI agreed to a permanent injunction against breaking federal labor law. Company management will have to undergo "quarterly child labor compliance training" for three years.