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Children illegally hired for graveyard shifts cleaning JBS meat plants, feds say

Children are working dangerous jobs at JBS meat processing plants in Minnesota and Nebraska, hired illegally for overnight shifts and tasks that left a 13-year-old with caustic chemical burns, federal officials say.

The U.S. Department of Labor this week asked a federal court to issue a nationwide restraining order against the world's largest meat processing company's plant clean-up provider, Packers Sanitation Services, or PSSI, to stop it from employing dozens of workers under the age of 18. A U.S. district judge in Lincoln, Nebraska, granted the temporary request on Thursday, a department spokesperson told CBS MoneyWatch in an email.

An investigation launched in August found that PSSI hired at least 31 children — ranging in age from 13 to 17 — to fulfill the company's sanitation contracts at JBS plants in Grand Island, Nebraska, and Worthington, Minnesota, and at Turkey Valley Farms in Marshall, Minnesota, Labor Department officials said.

The jobs performed by kids allegedly included cleaning dangerous powered equipment with corrosive cleaners during overnight shifts, and cleaning floors where animals are slaughtered. Several minors were injured, including a 13-year-old who suffered caustic chemical burns and other injuries, according to the agency.

The initial evidence "indicates PSSI may employ minor children under similar conditions at its other 400 operations across the country," the agency said in a court filing

PSSI is also accused of trying to intimidate minor workers to stop them from cooperating with investigators, and of deleting and manipulated employment files, DOL said. 

Headquartered in Kieler, Wisconsin, PSSI offers cleaning and sanitation services and employs 17,000 people as contract workers at 700 food processing plants. The company dismissed the allegations, saying "PSSI has an absolute companywide prohibition against the employment of anyone under the age of 18 and zero tolerance for any violation of that policy."

PSSI also uses a variety of procedures to confirm the identities of new hires, including the mandatory use of the government's E-verify system, the company told CBS MoneyWatch in a statement. 

"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," the company said.

The company is cooperating with the DOL as it continues its investigation, PSSI added.

JBS investigating

JBS said it was taking the allegations seriously. If true, they would violate the company's ethical policies, according to Michael Koenig, chief ethics and compliance officer at JBS USA, a unit of Brazilian meat giant JBS. The biggest producer of beef in the U.S., JBS USA is the nation's second-biggest producer of pork and poultry, employing more than 66,000 people at 55 facilities across the U.S. 

"We are immediately launching an independent, third-party audit at all of our facilities to thoroughly evaluate this situation. JBS has zero tolerance for child labor, discrimination or unsafe working conditions for anyone working in our facilities. We expect and contractually require our partners to adhere to the highest ethical principles as outlined in our business associate code of conduct," Koenig said in a statement sent to CBS MoneyWatch.

Turkey Valley Farms did not respond to a request for comment.

The Fair Labor Standards Act prohibits minors 13 years old and younger from working and 14- and 15-year-old employees from working later than 9 p.m. from June 1 through Labor Day and past 7 p.m. for the remainder of the year. The law also restricts the number of hours minors can work on school days and prohibits kids from operating hazardous equipment. 

"Federal laws were established decades ago to prevent employers from profiting by putting children in harm's way," Michael Lazzeri, a regional Labor Department official in Chicago said in a statement. "Taking advantage of children, exposing them to workplace dangers — and interfering with a federal investigation — demonstrates Packers Sanitation Services Inc.'s flagrant disregard for the law and for the well-being of young workers."

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