When federal authorities recently fined a food sanitation company for employing underage workers in dangerous jobs at 13 meat processing plants, the U.S. Department of Labor said it showed there would be no tolerance for child labor in America.
And yet a Scripps News investigation has found child labor likely occurred for years at one location in Grand Island, Neb., before the Labor Department detected it and intervened this past year, eventually identifying 27 minors illegally employed by Packers Sanitation Services, Inc, at a local beef plant.
PSSI was the contractor at the time responsible for daily cleaning of the factory owned by JBS USA.
"By the area where I work, some minors would walk through the hallway," said a 65-year-old JBS employee. He spoke in Spanish through an interpreter. He asked not to be identified out of concern he would jeopardize his job by speaking to the press.
He explained the work involved cleaning up blood and animal parts on the kill room floor and scrubbing food processing equipment with harsh chemicals.
"The ones who sanitize the plant work with a lot of chemicals," he said. "I don't know how old they were, but, yes, they looked a bit young. If for me as an adult it's dangerous, for them, it's more dangerous."
JBS USA terminated its contract with PSSI after the Department of Labor announced the results of its child labor investigation.
Federal court records in the case against PSSI obtained by Scripps News described teens getting burned by caustic cleansers at night, then going to school and falling asleep in class.
One 17-year-old dropped out of high school because they were so tired from cleaning, a filing by the Labor Department says.
Another document in the case says underage employees had been employed by PSSI in Grand Island since at least 2019.
Interviews with residents revealed a child labor problem going back even longer than that.
"I have memories of classmates falling asleep in school because they were working overnight," said Audrey Lutz, who grew up in Grand Island.
Lutz was the longtime executive director of the Multicultural Coalition, a local group that helps new immigrants settle in the city.
She also met with some of the underage workers identified by the Labor Department.
This report by Patrick Terpstra, Karen Rodriguez and Daniel Lathrop of Scripps News.