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A failed attempt to stop child labor years before a raid

A Scripps News investigation discovers a failed effort to stop child labor among young immigrants in rural Minnesota.
Posted at 8:52 PM, Apr 13, 2023

The Minnesota attorney general's office hit a dead end looking into a tip about widespread child labor in the small town of Worthington almost three years before the U.S. Department of Labor discovered 22 minors employed at a meatpacking plant there, Scripps News has learned. 

The case points to challenges authorities face when trying to investigate child labor, especially when it involves immigrants. 

The Minnesota attorney general's office learned about the possibility of underage workers in the Worthington area in January 2020, when human rights advocates gathered in the town for a conference about abusive labor practices. 

Madeline Lohman spoke at the summit and recalls hearing claims that local teachers suspected some of their immigrant students were working overnight after school. 

"They had kids who were tired, they had kids that seemed to have jobs after school that were more serious than you would expect a kid to have," said Lohman, associate program director for Advocates for Human Rights, a nonprofit based in Minneapolis. 

The Minnesota attorney general's office sent a Spanish-speaking investigator to Worthington High School to speak with a group of students and to discuss exploitative work, a spokesman for the attorney general confirmed. 

The investigator asked the students whether they had any concerns to share but did not hear any complaints. 

With silence from the students and no statutory authority to enforce federal child labor laws, the attorney general's probe did not go any further. 

Had the investigator heard firsthand claims about child labor, she would have been able to refer those findings to the U.S. Labor Department. 

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Instead, almost three years went by before Worthington found itself as part of one of the largest child labor busts in U.S. history. 

A Scripps News investigation in March detailed how the crackdown unfolded, beginning with a report about a 13-year-old suffering a chemical burn while working for a contractor at a beef plant in Grand Island, Nebraska. 

Investigators soon fanned out and discovered child workers in Grand Island, Neb., and at 12 other meat packing locations across the country, all employed by Packers Sanitation Services Inc., or PSSI. 

The Labor Department identified 22 teens — among the most found anywhere — working the graveyard shift at the Worthington plant, just as teachers had suspected years earlier. 

Court documents in the federal case against PSSI say the young employees would wedge themselves into small spaces beneath giant machines and clean with harsh chemicals. 

In Worthington, minors would "sanitize the equipment on the kill floor," including "multiple back saws, brisket saws, and a lard grinder." 

At the end of the night, "after their shift ended, they would go to school." 

And when investigators asked workers for their identification, some of them offered up "their school IDs." 

News of the child labor clampdown made national headlines, but wasn't a surprise to Father James Callahan, who leads a diverse congregation at St. Mary's Catholic Church in town. 

Callahan said he knows some of the underage workers who confided in him as their priest. 

"We knew and made sure that they knew how dangerous some of these jobs were," Callahan said. "But they also knew that they were going to be able to get paid, and get paid more than they ever experienced back home." 

Callahan said he had known about underage work going on at the plant for years. 

The Labor Department hasn't released personal details about the underage workers in Worthington, but Callahan said he's certain some of the kids at the plant were unaccompanied minors, children who cross the border without a parent or guardian. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services sends such children to live with sponsors around the country, often a relative. 

Nobles County, home of Worthington, received 150 unaccompanied minors in fiscal year 2022. A Scripps News analysis found that's more unaccompanied minors than HHS reported in any other county after accounting for population size. 

U.S. officials tour a meatpacking plant

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Erin Schutte Wadzinski, immigration attorney and owner of Kivu Immigration Law in Worthington, has worked with more than 100 unaccompanied minors placed in the area. 

She said she had not seen any evidence that points to unaccompanied minors as the ones working underage jobs. 

"It's important not to make the leap in assuming that the children who were working in the plant are unaccompanied children," she said. "The sponsors who I see at my law firm are responsible, loving individuals who have the best interest at heart for these kids." 

She showed a stack of paperwork the government requires of sponsors before they are permitted to receive a child. 

The care of unaccompanied minors has captured the attention of Congress. 

A group of Senate Democrats sent a letter to the Labor and Health and Human Services departments asking whether unaccompanied minors are being placed with "exploitative sponsors" and being forced to work "long hours in dangerous conditions." 

"We do want to go after the predators," said Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, D-Nev., who signed the letter. "We do want to, at the end of the day, just enforce the laws that we have on the books." 

The Department of Labor has reported a 69% increase in child labor since 2018. 

Congress has not passed any legislation to tackle the increase in underage work. 

"We're not letting this go," Cortez Masto said. "We've got to have answers. We've got to make sure these kids are taken care of, and their best interests are looked after." 

Congress has not yet responded to a request from the Labor Department for more funding to help investigate child labor, leaving children vulnerable in places like Worthington.