One of the largest food sanitation companies in the United States illegally employed at least 102 children in dangerous jobs cleaning meatpacking and slaughtering plants, the Labor Department said on Friday.
The company, Packers Sanitation Services Inc., paid a $1.5 million penalty on Thursday, the department said, after an investigation found that children ages 13 to 17 had worked overnight shifts at 13 meat processing plants in eight states, mostly in the South and the Midwest.
The department said the children had used hazardous chemicals to clean processing equipment, including back saws, brisket saws and head splitters. Its investigators learned that at least three minors had been injured while working for the company, the department said.
Under the Fair Labor Standards Act, Packers was fined $15,138 for each illegally employed child — the maximum civil monetary penalty allowed under federal law.
Some researchers have criticized the civil monetary penalties, which are set by Congress, as “woefully insufficient” to protect workers and to deter employers from violating labor laws.
“It’s really shameful that the level of fine is so low,” said Celine McNicholas, director of policy at the Economic Policy Institute, a research group that seeks to improve conditions for workers. “It’s not sufficiently toothy enough to prevent the use of child labor in the meatpacking industry.”
Packers, which is based in Kieler, Wis., employs more than 16,500 workers and provides contract work at hundreds of slaughtering and meatpacking plants nationwide, according to its website. The children it hired had worked at plants operated by major meat companies, including Tyson Foods, according to the Labor Department.
“The child labor violations in this case were systemic and reached across eight states, and clearly indicate a corporate-wide failure by Packers Sanitation Services at all levels,” Jessica Looman, the principal deputy administrator of the department’s wage and hour division, said in a statement.
“These children should never have been employed in meat packing plants and this can only happen when employers do not take responsibility to prevent child labor violations from occurring in the first place,” Ms. Looman said.
Packers said in a statement on Friday that it was “pleased to have finalized this settlement” as part of a resolution, approved by a federal judge in December, that ended the department’s investigation.
“We have been crystal clear from the start: Our company has a zero-tolerance policy against employing anyone under the age of 18 and fully shares the D.O.L.’s objective of ensuring full compliance at all locations,” Packers said. “As soon as we became aware of the D.O.L.’s allegations, we conducted multiple additional audits of our employee base, and hired a third-party law firm to review and help further strengthen our policies in this area.”
Packers paid its fine about three months after a federal judge approved an injunction that required the company to stop “employing oppressive child labor” and to comply with the department’s investigation into its hiring practices.
At the time, the Labor Department said that it had found that Packers had employed at least 31 children, ranging in age from 13 to 17, at three slaughtering and meatpacking plants.
Some of those children experienced caustic chemical burns and other injuries, the department said.
One 14-year-old, who worked from 11 p.m. to 5 a.m. five to six days a week, suffered chemical burns from cleaning machines used to cut meat, the department said. School records showed that the child fell asleep in class or missed class because of the job at the plant, the department said.
“Our investigation found Packers Sanitation Services’ systems flagged some young workers as minors, but the company ignored the flags,” Michael Lazzeri, the regional administrator in Chicago of the Labor Department’s wage and hour division, said in a statement.
“When the wage and hour division arrived with warrants, the adults — who had recruited, hired and supervised these children — tried to derail our efforts to investigate their employment practices,” Mr. Lazzeri said.
Packers said that the Labor Department had not identified any managers accused of improper conduct who were still employed by the company. Packers also said that it had conducted training for hiring managers, “including on spotting identity theft.”
None of the minors cited by the Labor Department still work for Packers, and many left “multiple years ago,” the company said.
Packers added that it uses the E-Verify system, biometrics and other checks to screen its employees and that it was “fully committed to working with D.O.L. to make additional improvements to enforce our prohibition of employing anyone under the age of 18.”