A leading US food sanitation company has hired dozens of children as young as 13 to work in dangerous conditions during long shifts at the graveyard, federal officials said.
According to the Department of Labor, Packers Sanitation Services allegedly used child labor at three meat processing plants in two states.
The DOL asked a federal court to issue a nationwide temporary restraining order and injunction against the company for alleged crimes at factories in Grand Island, Nebraska, Worthington, Minnesota and Marshall, Minnesota.
According to the department, more than 30 young workers, all under the age of 18, were tasked with cleaning dangerously powered equipment during night shifts.
Several, including a 13-year-old employee, suffered “severe” chemical burns, according to a federal lawsuit against the company.
Many of the underage workers were responsible for cleaning heavy equipment on a factory floor, including beef dehorners, breast saws and a “190-pound saw used to split cookie jars in half lengthwise,” the suit says.
After finishing their shifts early in the morning, several children went straight to their high school, where they routinely fell asleep in class, the report said.
Many of the children worked between 11 p.m. and 5 a.m. or 7 a.m., the document says. The young workers worked five or six days a week, with some bells working seven days a week.
The investigation was launched in August after a “credible” source emerged claiming the company was employing minors in dangerous conditions, the DOL said.
When they learned of the investigation, PSSI executives tried “in various ways to thwart or manipulate the collection of evidence,” according to the filing.
The supervisors allegedly told investigators not to take photos and tried to prevent the investigators from interviewing the workers, in addition to removing documents containing evidence.
PSSI has denied the allegations, telling NBC News it has “an absolute company-wide ban on hiring anyone under the age of 18 and zero tolerance for any violation of that policy — period.”
“While rogue individuals may of course attempt to participate in fraud or identity theft, we are confident in our company’s strict compliance policies and will vigorously defend ourselves against these claims,” a spokesperson said.
Federal law prohibits children under 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 are not allowed to work more than three hours on school days, eight hours on non-school days or more than 18 hours per week.
It is also illegal for children to operate the dangerous equipment that the PSSI allegedly entrusts the children to use.
“Federal laws were introduced decades ago to prevent employers from taking advantage by endangering children,” said Michael Lazzeri, Wage and Hour regional administrator in Chicago.
“Taking advantage of children, exposing them to workplace hazards — and interfering with a federal investigation — demonstrates Packers Sanitation Services Inc.’s blatant disregard for the law and for the well-being of young workers.”