A cleaning company with contracts at food processing facilities across the country has been ordered to stop using children under 18 years old to perform the often-hazardous work.

U.S. District Judge John Gerrard in Nebraska issued a temporary restraining order to Packers Sanitation Services in a case brought by the Labor Department. Federal investigators “interviewed children who reported working for Packers Sanitation under the age of 16,” the judge said. “Some children reported working long hours or overnight shifts. Other children reported working on power-driven machines or on the kill floor.”

“There is strong evidence that children under 16 were employed and that children of varying ages were employed for hours, and performing tasks, that are prohibited by federal law,” Gerrard said.

The laborers worked at JBS Foods in Worthington, Minnesota, and Grand Island, Nebraska, and at Turkey Valley Farms in Marshall, Minnesota.

In announcing the enforcement action, the Labor Department said its complaint “was prompted by an investigation by the department’s Wage and Hour Division that discovered that PSSI had employed at least 31 children — from 13 to 17 years of age — in hazardous occupations.”

“Investigators also learned that several minors employed by PSSI ­— including one 13 years old — suffered caustic chemical burns and other injuries,” the department said, and added that PSSI “interfered with an investigation by intimidating minor workers to stop them from cooperating with investigators. PSSI also allegedly deleted and manipulated employment files.”

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“PSSI provides contract sanitation services, chemical innovations, pest prevention and other solutions for about 700 food processing facilities nationwide and employs about 17,000 workers,” the department said in a news release.

PSSI said in a statement that it “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 said it was cooperating with the Labor Department and “will defend ourselves vigorously against these claims.”

“We are also surprised the DOL has taken this action given PSSI’s corporate office has been cooperating with their inquiry, producing extensive documents and responses,” the company said. “PSSI also worked with the DOL recently and successfully completed multiple audits with the agency that found no issues.”

A hearing on a request for preliminary injunction is scheduled for Nov. 23.

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