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Federal probe centers on underaged packing plant cleaners

Probe discovered 31 cleaners under the age of 18 in Minnesota and Nebraska plants; company denies knowledge.

MINNEAPOLIS — The U.S. Department of Labor alleges a national company that cleans meat packing plants in Minnesota and other states has employed underaged workers.

The DOL has filed for a restraining order against Packers Sanitation Services, Inc., or PSSI, based in Kieler, Wisconsin. In October, government investigators found 31 employees between the ages of 13 and 17 working in packing plant cleaning crews in Minnesota and Nebraska.

There are certain jobs federal laws prohibit for people under the age of 18 and that includes working in meat processing plants, even as equipment and killing floor cleaners.

"If you’re under 18 we’re going to put certain protections in place to make sure you can go to school and make sure you don’t injure yourself," Matthew Bodie, who teaches employment and labor law at the University of Minnesota School of Law, told KARE 11.

"Interacting with these kinds of dangerous environments the Department of Labor has said there are certain things that, even when you’re 17 years old, you can’t do. It’s not only because of their lack of physical maturity but because of their lack of experience."

According to court documents, DOL investigators conducted surveillance in October of the JBS packing plants in Worthington, Minnesota and Grand Island, Nebraska, as well as Turkey Valley Farms in Marshall, Minnesota.

After witnessing younger people going into all the plants at shift change, investigators obtained warrants allowing them to speak to employees.

Investigators were able to determine the true ages of the workers by comparing their names and identities to local school district records. Many of the conversations with the employees were conducted in Spanish.

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Some of the young cleaning workers also worked late night and overnight shifts, which is also against federal law.

Children under the age of 14 aren’t allowed to work under federal law. Those ages 15 and 16 aren’t allowed to work past 7:00 p.m. on a school day.  Those who are 16 and 17 can work past 7:00 p.m. but aren’t allowed to use meat packing plant equipment or be involved in cleaning it.

According to court documents, some of the underaged workers had falsified IDs. Investigators saw texts on one of the young worker's phone seeking advice from his PSSI supervisor about how to get more fake ID cards for other jobs.

Gina Swenson, the marketing vice president at PSSI, issued the following statement to KARE:

"PSSI has an absolute company-wide prohibition against the employment of anyone under the age of 18 and zero tolerance for any violation of that policy -- period.

"PSSI has industry-leading, best-in-class procedures to confirm the identities of its employees -- including mandatory use of the Government's E-verify system. as well as extensive training, document verification, biometrics, and multiple layers of audits.

"While rogue individuals could of course seek to engage in fraud or identity theft, we are confident in our company's strict compliance policies and will defend ourselves vigorously against these claims."

JBS and Turkey Valley Farms have also issued statements denying knowledge of underage workers and saying the company, as a policy, doesn’t tolerate violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act.

The U of M’s Bodie said, considering the statements from the company, the situation is perplexing.

"It's a little surprising, frankly, that there wasn't a better system in place at the company to prevent this from happening," Bodie remarked.

"There's also the eye test, which is part of what the government was saying -- that a lot of these workers looked like they were underage."

Dept. of Labor attorneys will be in federal court in Lincoln, Nebraska Nov. 23 making their case for an injunction against PSSI, preventing the company from interfering with a wider investigation of other workplaces and ordering the company to cease the practice of hiring underaged workers.

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