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Kids as young as 13 got chemical burns working at sanitation business, officials say

Charlotte Observer - 11/10/2022

Dozens of children as young as 13 illegally worked hazardous jobs — some of them suffering workplace injuries — at a food safety sanitation provider, authorities said.

The U.S. Department of Labor has asked a federal court to issue a nationwide temporary restraining order andinjunction against Packers Sanitation Services after an investigation into plants in Nebraska and Minnesota, according to a Nov. 9 news release.

Investigators learned the company hired at least 31 children, many of whom worked overnight jobs at three plants.

Some of the children suffered chemical burns and other injuries in their duties, which included “cleaning dangerous powered equipment.”

“In its filing, the department alleges the food sanitation contractor interfered with an investigation by intimidating minor workers to stop them from cooperating with investigators,” officials said in the release. “PSSI also allegedly deleted and manipulated employment files.”

Packers Sanitation Services provides cleaning services in several states. McClatchy News has reached out to the company for a comment.

What the children said

At least 17 of the children were interviewed by federal officials at the facilities in Nebraska and Minnesota. Investigators also accessed school records and conducted surveillance at the meat processing plants.

A 14-year-old working for the company said his job, since they were 13, was to clean machinery that at one point caused a burn injury. The job required overnight hours, even on school days, according to the criminal complaint.

Another 14-year-old middle-schooler, who also worked overnight shifts, told authorities they often fell asleep in school after their long hours, the complaint states.

Others documented their accounts of receiving chemical burns, some from cleaning conveyor belts. One minor said they recently dropped out of high school “because they are working and was tired,” officials said.

“PSSI is employing, or has employed, at least twelve 17-year-olds, fourteen 16-year-olds, three 15-year-olds, one 14-year-old and one 13-year-old across three slaughterhouses/meat processing facilities,” according to the complaint.

The company’s practices “causes irreparable harm to minors,” officials said.

What the law says

The Department of Labor has taken the employer to court in its attempts to stop the “oppressive child labor.”

Federal law prohibits minors under the age of 14 from working, and children 14 or 15 years old from working later than 9 p.m. during summer months — and 7 p.m. the remainder of the year. Minors are also not allowed to operate heavy machinery.

Michael Lazzeri, a Department of Labor regional administrator in Chicago, said the laws were established “to prevent employers from profiting by putting children in harm’s way.”

“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,” Lazzeri said in the release.

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