LINCOLN, NEB. – The US Department of Labor asked the US District Court of Nebraska in Lincoln to issue a nationwide temporary restraining order and injunction against Packers Sanitation Services Inc. (PSSI) on Nov. 9.
The agency claimed that the food safety sanitation company illegally employed dozens of minor-aged workers. DOL alleged that its Wage and Hour Division discovered that PSSI used at least 31 people ranging from the age of 13 to 17 years old to work in hazardous occupations.
The jobs performed by minors included cleaning equipment during overnight shifts to fulfill sanitation contracts at JBS USA plants in Grand Island, Neb., and Worthington, Minn., and at Turkey Valley Farms in Marshall, Minn.
Investigators from DOL also said that several minors employed by PSSI – including one 13-year-old – suffered caustic chemical burns and other injuries.
“The Department of Labor will use every available legal resource to protect workers – regardless of their age – and hold to account those employers who mistakenly believe they can violate the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), obstruct federal investigations, and retaliate against workers who assert their rights,” said Christine Heri, regional solicitor at DOL in Chicago.
The FLSA prohibits people under the age of 14 from working and 14 to 15-year-old employees from working later than 9 p.m. from June 1 through Labor Day and past 7 p.m., the remainder of the year.
In its filing, the department alleges the food sanitation contractor impeded an investigation by intimidating minor workers to stop them from cooperating with investigators. PSSI also allegedly deleted and manipulated employment files.
DOL shared that its investigation of PSSI started on Aug. 24 when the Wage and Hour Division received information alleging the company assigned minors to work in a hazardous occupation. The division executed warrants for the company’s operations at the three plants, its local offices and at PSSI’s Keiler, Wis., corporate office.
PSSI released a statement to MEAT+POULTRY stating that 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.
The company noted that it has mandatory use of the US government’s E-verify system for new hires, as well as extensive training, document verification, biometrics, and multiple layers of audits.
“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 PSSI spokesperson said. “We are also surprised the DOL has taken this action given PSSI’s corporate office has been cooperating with their inquiry, producing extensive documents and responses.”
The company added that it worked with DOL recently and completed multiple audits with the agency that found no issues.
“PSSI will continue to cooperate with the DOL and will continue to enforce its absolute prohibition against employing anyone under the age of 18,” the company concluded.
JBS USA also provided MEAT+POULTRY with a statement on the allegations presented by the agency including the meat producer's next steps.
"We take seriously the allegations against PSSI, which, if true, represent a clear violation of our ethical policies," said Michael Koenig, chief ethics and compliance officer for JBS. "We are immediately launching an independent, third-party audit at all of our facilities to thoroughly evaluate this situation. JBS has zero tolerance for child labor, discrimination or unsafe working conditions for anyone working in our facilities. We expect and contractually require our partners to adhere to the highest ethical principles as outlined in our Business Associate Code of Conduct."
PSSI provides contract sanitation services, chemical innovations, pest prevention and other solutions for about 700 food processing facilities nationwide and employs about 17,000 workers.