A leading food sanitation company in the United States has employed dozens of children as young as 13 to work in hazardous conditions during long graveyard shifts, federal officials said.
Packers Sanitation Services is suspected of using child labor at three meatpacking plants in two states, according to the Department of Labor.
The DOL asked a federal court to issue a nationwide temporary restraining order and injunction against the company regarding alleged wrongdoing at plants in Grand Island, Nebraska, Worthington, Minnesota and Marshall, Minnesota.
More than 30 young workers, all under the age of 18, were assigned to clean dangerous electrical equipment during the overnight shift, according to the department.
Several, including a 13-year-old worker, suffered “serious” chemical burns, according to a federal lawsuit against the company.
Many underage workers were responsible for cleaning heavy-duty equipment on the factory’s killing floor, including beef dehorners, brisket saws and “a 190-pound saw used to split beef carcasses in half length-wise,” the suit says.
After finishing their morning shifts, some of the children went straight to their middle school, where they routinely fell asleep in class, the filing said.
Many children work between 11 a.m. and 5 a.m. or 7 a.m., the document states. Young workers work five or six days per week, and some hours on seven working days per week.
The investigation was launched in August after a “credible” source came forward saying the company employed minors in dangerous situations, the DOL said.
Upon learning of the investigation, PSSI managers “attempted to thwart or alter the collection of evidence in various ways,” the filing states.
Supervisors allegedly told investigators that they were not allowed to take photos and tried to prevent investigators from interviewing the workers in addition to removing documents containing evidence.
PSSI has denied the allegations, telling NBC News that “the company has an absolute ban on employing anyone under the age of 18 and zero tolerance for violating that policy – period.”
“While bad guys may of course seek to engage in fraud or identity theft, we believe in our company’s strict compliance policy and will defend ourselves vigorously against these claims,” the 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 7pm during the school year, and no later than 9pm in the summer. Children cannot work more than three hours on a school day, eight hours on a non-school day or more than 18 hours a week.
It is also illegal for children to operate dangerous equipment that is indicated by the PSSI for use by children.
“Federal laws were established decades ago to prevent employers from profiting by harming children,” said Wage and Hour Regional Administrator Michael Lazzeri in Chicago.
“Exploiting children, exposing them to workplace hazards — and interfering with federal investigations — demonstrates Packers Sanitation Services Inc.’s flagrant disregard for the law and the welfare of young workers.”