Cleaning meatpacking plants overnight can be dangerous work. The U.S. Department of Labor said major maintenance company PSSI has tasked minors with the jobs.

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Packers Sanitation Services Inc., or PSSI, is a large maintenance company that cleans meatpacking plants for some of the largest meat companies in the U.S., including JBS and Tyson Foods. Its employees work overnight to clean the residue of animals off heavy machinery.

Last week, the U.S. Department of Labor filed a complaint against PSSI for allegedly employing minors, some of whom suffered chemical burns from the cleaning supplies.

Here are the five things to know about PSSI and the complaint.

PSSI often employs immigrants. In the 1950s, meatpacking was a unionized, well-paying job, but then companies started moving plants to rural areas and hiring immigrants. In 2015, at least a quarter of all meat and poultry workers were foreign-born non-citizens, according to a federal report. Aligning with the industry, PSSI employs many immigrants, including some whom are undocumented, according to a 2017 investigation by Bloomberg.

The DOL discovered at least 31 minors at three Midwestern plants. Comparing employment and school records, the agency found some were as young as 13. Also, evidence “indicates,” the DOL said in its complaint, that PSSI may employ children at its 400 operations around the country. The overnight shifts affected some of the minors’ schoolwork: One said he often fell asleep in class or skipped school, while another said he dropped out. All of the minors spoke Spanish.

Gina Swenson, PSSI’s vice president of marketing, said in a statement that the company 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.” 

The company uses the government’s E-verify system to determine employees’ work eligibility as well as “extensive training, document verification, biometrics, and multiple layers of audits,” she said.

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

These photos are included in the DOL's complaint against PSSI to show the working conditions during overnight cleanup. The photos were taken while investigators executed a warrant at plants in Grand Island, Nebraska, and Worthington, Minnesota.

The DOL claims PSSI attempted to “thwart” its investigation. Managers and supervisors told investigators they couldn’t take photos or videos inside the plants, the DOL said. During one confidential interview with a worker believed to be a minor, a manager attempted to sit in. And one investigator witnessed a PSSI safety specialist trashing documents on a company laptop before turning it over; the specialist said they were organizing the documents.

A judge granted the DOL’s request to prevent PSSI from hiring minors. The federal judge granted the DOL’s request for a temporary restraining order through Nov. 23, when a hearing on a preliminary injunction is scheduled to be held. 

Swenson said PSSI was “surprised” DOL filed the complaint.

“PSSI’s Corporate office has been cooperating with their inquiry, producing extensive documents and responses,” she said. “?PSSI also worked with the DOL recently and successfully completed multiple audits with the agency that found no ?issues. ?PSSI will continue to cooperate with the DOL and will continue to enforce its absolute prohibition against employing anyone under the age of 18.”

More records could be coming. In its complaint, the DOL said PSSI, as Swenson mentioned, provided the agency “several gigabytes” of data on employees. One personnel file is roughly 500 pages, the DOL said, and it has started going through the records. In October, DOL investigators also began a “cursory review” of another 47 locations where it suspects minors might be working.

Top image: Department of Labor photo by Shawn T. Moore