OMAHA, Neb. (AP) — The slaughterhouse cleaning company that was found to be employing more than 100 children to help sanitize dangerous razor-sharp equipment like bone saws has continued to lose contracts with the major meat producers since the investigation became public last fall.
For its part, Packers Sanitation Services Inc., or PSSI as it is known, said it has taken a number of steps to tighten up its hiring practices but it says the rising number of child labor cases nationwide is likely related to the increase in the number of minors crossing the U.S. border alone in recent years.
The scandal that followed the February announcement that PSSI would pay a $1.5 million fine and reform its hiring practices as part of an agreement with investigators also prompted the Biden administration to urge the entire meat processing industry to take steps to ensure no kids are working in these plants either for the meat companies or at contractors like PSSI.
Federal investigators confirmed that children as young as 13 were working for PSSI at 13 plants in Arkansas, Colorado, Indiana, Kansas, Minnesota, Nebraska, Tennessee and Texas. It wasn't immediately clear if any additional children have been found working for the company because PSSI declined to answer that and government officials haven't offered an update on the investigation since February.
The Labor Department has said there has been a 69% increase since 2018 in the number of children being employed illegally nationwide, and it has more than 600 child labor investigations underway. Officials have said they are particularly concerned about the potential exploitation of migrants who may not even have a parent in the United States.
PSSI maintains that it prohibits hiring kids and the only way children could have been hired is "through deliberate identity theft or fraud at a local plant. Regardless of the reason they occurred, it is our responsibility to address the problem."
"As has been widely reported, the recent record rise in unaccompanied minors from abroad and rising prevalence of identity theft has clearly revealed new vulnerabilities in the area of underage labor across hundreds of different businesses including ours," PSSI spokesman Ray Hernandez said.
Companies like PSSI are put in a difficult situation of having to turn away applicants who appear to have a valid ID when they want to hire workers, and they also have to be careful not to discriminate by imposing extra scrutiny on immigrants, said David Bier, an immigration policy expert at the libertarian-leaning Cato Institute that advocates for more open immigration laws. The fact that more than half a million children have crossed the border without their parents since 2019 creates a large group of minors who may try to get jobs.
"Seventeen-year-old, 16-year-old or 15-year-old even gets an ID and a company needs workers, it's difficult to police," Bier said. And the meatpacking industry is always desperate to find more workers. "If you're willing to do the work and you have an ID, then you're going to be able to get a job."
Cargill, Tyson Foods and JBS have all terminated contracts with PSSI at at least some of their plants — particularly any plants where Labor Department investigators confirmed children were working — although Cargill went furthest and cut ties with the Kieler, Wisconsin-based company entirely. Another meat processing giant, Smithfield Foods, said only that it is taking a close look at its contracts with PSSI, which currently cleans about one-third of the company's 45 plants, to ensure that all labor laws are being followed.
Those four companies, along with National Beef, control over 80% of the beef market and more than 60% of the pork market nationwide. National Beef didn't respond to questions about its actions.
Cargill spokeswoman April Nelson said the company notified PSSI in March that it would end all 14 of its contracts because "we will not tolerate the use of underage labor within our facilities or supplier network."
Tyson and JBS officials also reiterated their commitment to eliminating child labor in their plants, and they said each of their companies had ended PSSI contracts at several plants. But they declined to provide specific numbers about how many contracts they cut and how many plants PSSI is still cleaning for them.
"Tyson Foods is committed to compliance with all labor laws and holding those we do business with to the highest standards of accountability," said Dan Turton, a senior vice president at Tyson, in a letter to members of Congress about their child labor concerns. He promised Tyson would step up its audits of contractors and continue cooperating with federal officials to ensure its own hiring meets all standards.
The major meat processors say they are looking to bring more of the cleaning work at their plants in house, but they will likely continue to rely on contractors in many places. Tyson, for instance, said that its own workers clean about 40% of its plants.
PSSI wouldn't say how many workers it has laid off after losing contracts, but the way it describes itself on its website hints at the job losses. PSSI now says it has about 16,500 employees nationwide working at more than 400 plants, down from the more than 17,000 it cited last fall before the investigation. Still, it remains one of the largest cleaners of food processing plants.
PSSI says it is going above and beyond what the official court agreement required to ensure no kids are working there. And the company, which is owned by the New York-based private equity firm Blackstone, named a new CEO who just took over last week after its longtime top executive retired after 24 years.
PSSI hired a former U.S. Customs and Border Patrol officer to help strengthen the training its managers get to spot identity theft, and brought on a former Labor Department official to conduct monthly unannounced checks on its practices. The company also set up a hotline for employees to anonymously report any concerns.