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Scripps News Investigates: A city’s not-so-secret child labor problem

A Scripps News investigation found suspicions of child labor went back years before authorities took action against a Nebraska meatpacking plant.
Posted at 9:13 PM, Mar 02, 2023

When federal authorities recently fined a food sanitation company for employing underage workers in dangerous jobs at 13 meat processing plants, the U.S. Department of Labor said it showed there would be no tolerance for child labor in America. 

And yet a Scripps News investigation has found child labor likely occurred for years at one location in Grand Island, Neb., before the Labor Department detected it and intervened this past year, eventually identifying 27 minors illegally employed by Packers Sanitation Services, Inc, at a local beef plant. 

PSSI was the contractor at the time responsible for daily cleaning of the factory owned by JBS USA. 

"By the area where I work, some minors would walk through the hallway," said a 65-year-old JBS employee. He spoke in Spanish through an interpreter. He asked not to be identified out of concern he would jeopardize his job by speaking to the press. 

He explained the work involved cleaning up blood and animal parts on the kill room floor and scrubbing food processing equipment with harsh chemicals.

"The ones who sanitize the plant work with a lot of chemicals," he said. "I don't know how old they were, but, yes, they looked a bit young. If for me as an adult it's dangerous, for them, it's more dangerous."  

JBS USA terminated its contract with PSSI after the Department of Labor announced the results of its child labor investigation. 

Federal court records in the case against PSSI obtained by Scripps News described teens getting burned by caustic cleansers at night, then going to school and falling asleep in class. 

One 17-year-old dropped out of high school because they were so tired from cleaning, a filing by the Labor Department says.  

Another document in the case says underage employees had been employed by PSSI in Grand Island since at least 2019. 

Interviews with residents revealed a child labor problem going back even longer than that. 

"I have memories of classmates falling asleep in school because they were working overnight," said Audrey Lutz, who grew up in Grand Island. 

Lutz was the longtime executive director of the Multicultural Coalition, a local group that helps new immigrants settle in the city. 

She also met with some of the underage workers identified by the Labor Department. 

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"We went into the schools to provide information to the youth about labor practices, about knowing their rights," Lutz said. "The sad thing is they didn't want the services. They're young, they're vulnerable and they're afraid. The majority of the youth that we have spoken with denied working out there.  So that reticence to talk to helping adults really indicates their level of fear." 

Lutz said many of the teens were part of Grand Island’s large immigrant community. 

"My suspicion is that they are all undocumented,” she said. “It is well known in our community that if you didn't have proper documentation, the cleaning crew would hire you.” 

PSSI said hiring undocumented workers would be in complete violation of its policies.  

The company declined a request for an interview about the child labor investigation and sent a statement saying in part, “We have been crystal clear from the start: Our company has a zero-tolerance policy against employing anyone under the age of 18. We are fully committed to working with [The Department of Labor] to make additional improvements to enforce our prohibition of employing anyone under the age of 18.” 

PSSI agreed to pay $1.5 million in civil penalties for employing 102 minors at 13 meat processing plants across eight states. 

A review of inspection data at the Department of Labor showed 22 inspections of the Grand Island plant in the past decade resulting in 16 violations against PSSI or JBS ranging from unsafe wiring to improper machine guarding. 

There were no citations for child labor. 

The JBS employee who talked to Scripps News said young workers would have been obvious had inspectors looked in the middle of the night. 

"They should check the plants more often and they should also come during sanitizing, then they would have realized minors were working here," he said. 

A Scripps News review of more than 200 Department of Labor enforcement and inspection cases targeting PSSI nationwide showed none related to child labor, even as the Labor Department described PSSI’s illegal employment of minors as a systemic problem. 

"Monitoring factories is difficult. It's not impossible, though," said Reid Maki, director of child labor issues at the National Consumers League, a group that has been calling on the Labor Department to be more aggressive about investigating underage workers in meat processing plants. 

"Going back to 2003, we've been concerned about the possibility of kids getting work in meatpacking plants illegally," he said. 

The Labor Department has announced a new initiative to combat child labor, including asking Congress to boost the maximum civil penalty for employers, and to approve more funding for enforcement. 

Michael Lazzeri, a wage and hour regional administrator for the Department of Labor, says inspectors rely on employers to follow the law and for employees to blow the whistle when they see underage workers. 

"I think a good question that I would be asking is, how do these kids walk by a guard station in a facility? How come no one picked up the phone?" Lazzeri said. "I can tell you we are doing everything we can to amp up our efforts to be able to root out child labor where we know it could be."