ST. PAUL, MINN. – The Minnesota Department of Labor and Industry (DLI) confirmed on Sept. 8 that a meat processor will pay $300,000 in penalties after its investigation found minors working in hazardous jobs.

The state agency said that Tony Downs Food Company employed at least eight minors between the ages of 14 and 17 who were operating meat-processing equipment, violating state labor laws.

An audit focused on a time period between Jan. 26, 2021, to Jan. 26, 2023. The DLI alleged that teenage employees were operating the company’s meat grinders, ovens and forklifts during overnight shifts.

When the investigation started, DLI officials conducted an overnight on-site visit to Tony Downs. After that initial visit, the agency filed a temporary restraining order in March.

“The consequences of child labor violations are substantial and the Department of Labor and Industry is committed to combatting these violations,” said Nicole Blissenbach, commissioner of the DLI. “This is why DLI is focused on strategic enforcement of the Minnesota Child Labor Standards Act, devoting investigatory resources on industries where violations are most likely to occur and using all available mechanisms to aggressively enforce the law. In this case, Tony Downs has agreed to take important steps to prevent child labor violations.”

A consent order was filed at the Fifth District Court in Watonwan County, Minnesota, where Tony Downs agreed to comply with the Minnesota Child Labor Standards Act at its facilities and to pay $300,000 in administrative penalties.

Additionally, it will hire a third-party compliance specialist within 90 days to provide training and adopt or revise policies and procedures. The order states that Tony Downs agreed to these conditions for three years.  

Following DLI's investigation, David Ross, vice president of human resources for Tony Downs, released a statement to MEAT+POULTRY regarding the penalties.

"We agreed to this settlement and compliance program in order to return our full attention to what we do best – working with our employee team to provide our customers and their consumers with quality food products," Ross said. "But in agreeing to this settlement, Tony Downs Foods does not admit to the violations of law in our employment practices alleged by Minnesota Department of Labor and Industry (DLI). We cooperated fully with DLI’s investigation and this civil agreement is not an admission of any unlawful act. We believe that the administrative penalty included in the settlement was grossly disproportionate, not supported under the law, and an attempt by the DLI to make our family-owned company an example for a serious issue that is pervasive among employers in the food sector and many other industries across the US.  As we have stated repeatedly, Tony Downs does not, and did not, knowingly hire workers who are under 18 years of age in production areas."

Tony Downs Foods added that even before the investigation that it used the federal E-Verify program to hire employees who are required to provide government-issued identification that they are eighteen years or older. 

"Every new employee must attest to their date of birth on the Form I-9 they complete no later than on the first day of employment," Ross said. "We have conducted additional training for our human resources and supervisory staff on I-9 forms and the use of the E-Verify system, as well as how to recognize signs that an individual may be using false identification and may not be of legal employment age. In addition, we have contracted with an experienced compliance professional who will work with us as we continue to improve our policies, training and hiring process."  

The Minnesota Child Labor Standards Act prohibits companies from employing minors in hazardous occupations. It also does not allow minors under 16 years of age to work after 9 p.m., more than eight hours a day or more than 40 hours a week.

Several other child labor investigations have occurred in Minnesota and other parts of the United States in 2023. 

The DLI investigation comes after Packers Sanitation Services Inc. (PSSI) agreed to pay $1.5 million in civil penalties in February after the US Department of Labor found at least 102 workers from 13 to 17 years of age were cleaning meatpacking plants.