Company hired same ‘known minor’ twice to clean slaughterhouses, internal document says
A company that the Labor Department said used more than 100 children to clean slaughterhouses has hired the same child twice under different names, according to an internal company document.
A June 2021 disciplinary report reviewed by NBC News shows Packers Sanitation Services Inc. disciplined an employee who hired the same “known minor” twice in six months under two different identities.
The hiring employee was demoted and suspended for three days and required to undergo a “hiring policy review,” according to the document.
The employee did not respond to a request for comment. PSSI spokeswoman Gina Swenson said the employee “was on personal leave and not currently actively working for the company.”
Wisconsin-based PSSI, which is owned by investment management firm Blackstone, was cited by the US Department of Labor on Friday for “systemic” child labor violations that indicated “an industry-wide failure.” company” spanning 13 locations in eight states.
The Homeland Security Investigations Division of the Department of Homeland Security continues to investigate whether the children, largely undocumented migrants, were part of a human trafficking scheme, DHS officials said. . PSSI is not the target of this investigation and has not been accused of wrongdoing by DHS.
A former PSSI director, who asked NBC News not to reveal his identity, said seeing children working for the company made them “sick”. They said they weren’t surprised by the Labor Department’s findings — they were only surprised that it took the Labor Department so long to uncover the underage workers.
“There are things going on in the factory that adults aren’t comfortable seeing,” they said. “You can’t cross [the plant] without putting animal parts on you or blood all over you.
Shannon Rebolledo, a 17-year Department of Labor veteran who led the investigation into PSSI’s use of child labor, said she had “never seen child labor violations to this extent.” and that employees at a factory in Grand Island, Nebraska, tried to hide evidence by deleting digital messages during the investigation.
“Just the number of child laborers… I have never seen an employer or their representative hamper my investigation so brazenly,” Rebolledo said.
In a statement, PSSI said the company cooperated with the Labor Department’s investigation.
“PSSI cooperated with the DOL investigation – contrary to any false claims to the contrary – including facilitating multiple site visits, employee interviews and producing over 100 million pages of documents – and fully shares the objective of DOL to ensure that no one under the age of 18 works for PSSI,” said Swenson, the PSSI spokesperson. “We have also terminated two local officials cited in the DOL filing as allegedly obstructing their investigation, which further illustrates this commitment.”
In a statement, Blackstone said: “We are delighted that PSSI has resolved this issue with the Department of Labor. PSSI has an absolute zero tolerance policy against the employment of anyone under the age of 18 and is fully committed to ensuring that it is applied to all PSSI continued to improve its already extensive procedures to prevent identity theft, including recent measures to carry out several additional audits and trainings, and to hire additional experts in third-party compliance.”
Michael Lazzeri, regional wage and hour administrator for the Department of Labor, said: ‘Our investigation found that Packers Sanitation Services’ systems were flagging some young workers as minors, but the company ignored the flags.
After the Department of Labor announced it had found 50 children working for PSSI in December, the company signed a consent decree saying it would abide by child labor laws.
Swenson said in an email, “Our company is firmly committed to our zero-tolerance policy against the employment of anyone under the age of 18, and fully shares the DOL’s goal of ensuring full compliance on all sites. As parents and citizens, we don’t want a single person under the age of 18 working for PSSI, period – and are taking significant steps to prevent individuals at the grassroots level from circumventing our far-reaching procedures.
The former manager said that the company did not sufficiently review identification documents when hiring staff members and that the company hired many undocumented immigrants who used false identities to pass the government compliance system E-Verify.
“In this industry, there are a lot of people who are undocumented workers. A lot of times it’s because they’re not going to pay well enough to hire people in America who want to do that,” the former manager said.
The former manager said that while some employees with fake documents were turned away, it was common for workers with obviously fake IDs to be hired as long as the documents showed they were legal and of legal age. “You can look at the ID and say the person on the ID isn’t even close to the person standing in front of you.”
Swenson told NBC News in response, “That’s categorically untrue – period. We’ve been very clear that we don’t want a single person under the age of 18 working for the company. We have trained and retrained our hired employees on how to actively detect identity theft – as part of our extensive efforts to enforce this absolute ban on employing anyone under the age of 18.
Swenson said the company uses the government’s E-Verify system for new hires, along with “multiple audits and biometrics” to verify identities. Swenson argued that if an underage employee is able to circumvent E-Verify, it is “through deliberate identity theft and/or fraud for a rental at a local factory.”
Allegations of child labor by PSSI at a Grand Island slaughterhouse date back to 2016, according to a local police report obtained by NBC News. The report says an officer was called to the local college because a 14-year-old girl had ‘hand injuries’. The document shows the allegations were investigated as ‘child abuse’.
A Grand Island Police spokesperson said the injuries were from the child’s work at PSSI. Police determined it was the girl’s labor through conversation with the child and her guardian. The case was taken to the local prosecutor and the child’s guardian was investigated but not charged, according to a local police official.
Local school officials told Labor Department investigators it was “common knowledge” that the children worked night shifts at the local meatpacking plant and often fell asleep in class, according to court documents.
Audrey Lutz, former executive director of a local Nebraska nonprofit group that helps child laborers on Grand Island, said the Guatemalan child laborers she met were clearly children: “They are young. They are naive. They are small in size. They are looking for a better life. And it shows in their eyes. »
Lutz said the children were too afraid to speak to NBC News and unaware that they were prohibited from doing the work. “These children come from countries where it is very common for young people as young as 12 or even younger to support their families,” Lutz said. “But in this country, we reserve dangerous jobs like cleaning meatpacking plants for adult people who can make choices for themselves about the dangers and risks involved.”
The company paid a $1.5 million fine to the Labor Department, or $15,138 for each child employed illegally. Department of Labor officials say that’s the maximum penalty under federal law.
Lutz said she thinks greater liability is warranted beyond the fine. “The federal government needs to hold the people with the purse strings accountable. Who made money off the backs of kids cleaning up a meatpacking plant? »
She added that she wanted to see a criminal investigation. “I think the Department of Justice should step in and fully investigate and determine who is responsible for the employment of so many children, not just on Grand Island, Nebraska, but across the country.”
Department of Labor officials say what department investigators discovered at the PSSI is part of a growing national concern. They point to agency data that shows a 69% increase across the country in the number of minors employed in violation of child labor laws from 2018 to 2022.