Child labor unravels one immigrant family, company faces no criminal charges

Johnnie Pratt

One of 27 minors hired to clean a Nebraska slaughterhouse, the middle-schooler and her family now fear deportation and more.

A swing set at Mormon Island State Recreation Area at Grand Island, Neb., on Feb. 25. The fallout from the Packers Sanitation Services case in Grand Island illustrates the painful complexity of enforcing U.S. child labor laws. (Madeline Cass)

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At 13, she was too young to be cleaning a meatpacking plant in the heart of Nebraska cattle country, working the graveyard shift amid the brisket saws and the bone cutters. The cleaning company broke the law when it hired her and more than two dozen other teenagers in this gritty industrial town, federal officials said.

Since the U.S. Department of Labor raided the plant in October, Packers Sanitation Services, a contractor hired to clean the facility, has been fined for violating child labor laws. The girl, meanwhile, has watched her whole life unravel.

First, she lost the job that burned and blistered her skin but paid her $19 an hour. Then a county judge sent her stepfather to jail for driving her to work each night, a violation of state child labor laws. Her mother also faces jail time for securing the fake papers that got the child the job in the first place. And her parents are terrified of being sent back to Guatemala, the country they left several years ago in search of a better life.

“I have no words,” the mother said last month, sobbing in the doorway of their pale-peach house hours after police had led her husband away in handcuffs. The girl, now 14, hugged her mother and struggled to describe how she felt.

“Bad,” she said, finally.

A sweeping investigation of Packers found 102 teens, ages 13 to 17, scouring slaughterhouses in eight states, part of a growing wave of child workers illegally hired to fill jobs in some of the nation’s most dangerous industries. Driven in part by persistent labor shortages and record numbers of unaccompanied migrant minors arriving from Central America, child labor violations have nearly quadrupled since 2015, according to Labor Department data, spiking in hazardous jobs that American citizens typically shun.

Homeland Security Investigations has opened a criminal investigation into possible human trafficking related to the Department of Labor’s civil probe, a spokesperson said, and the Biden administration this week pledged a broader crackdown. But the fallout in Grand Island illustrates the painful complexity of enforcing the nation’s child labor laws.

Packers has faced no criminal charges, despite evidence that it failed to take basic steps to verify the age of its young employees. Last month, it quickly resolved the case by paying a $1.5 million civil fine. The families of the teen workers, by contrast, have been exposed to child-abuse charges and potential deportation. None have applied for work permits and the protection against deportation that is available to the child workers, fearing retaliation in a company town where almost everyone’s job is somehow tied to the meatpacking industry.

Since the October raid, some of the children are nowhere to be found — dismissed from their jobs and no longer in school, according to two school employees. Migrant advocates said Labor Department officials raided the Grand Island plant with no plan for making sure all the children were safe and then declined to provide the children’s names to organizations that could have helped them.

“It’s maddening,” said Audrey Lutz, a former director of the nonprofit Multicultural Coalition, which provides services to immigrants. “We have no idea where they are.”

The Grand Island teens had been hired to scour blood and beef fat from the slippery “kill floor,” using high-pressure hoses, scalding water and industrial foams and acids, according to the Labor Department in federal court records. They sanitized electric knives, fat skinners and 190-pound saws used to split cow carcasses, according to court records. Some students suffered chemical burns and were so sleep-deprived after working their night shifts that they dozed off in classes, according to a local prosecutor and court records.

Packers officials said they have dismissed all the minor workers and fired two managers in Grand Island. They accused “rogue individuals” of using counterfeit documents to prove that the children were of legal age and emphasized that the 102 workers made up a tiny share of the company’s 17,000-member workforce. The full statement from Packers is available here.

“As parents and citizens, we don’t want a single person under 18 working for [Packers], period,” spokeswoman Gina Swenson said in an email.

“Our company has a strong corporate commitment to our zero-tolerance policy against employing anyone under the age of 18,” Swenson added. “As soon as we became aware of the [Labor Department’s] allegations, we conducted multiple additional audits of our employee base, and hired a third-party law firm to review and help further strengthen our policies in this area — among numerous other steps.”

Packers is owned by Blackstone, one of the world’s largest private-equity firms, which is valued in the market at more than $100 billion. A Blackstone official said that company, too, opposes child labor and is “pleased that PSSI has resolved this matter with the Department of Labor.”

The Grand Island meatpacking plant is owned by Brazil-based JBS, one of the world’s biggest beef producers, which owns two other plants where children worked. In 2016, the Brazilian government fined JBS for illegally employing children, and, in 2021, a Brazilian anti-slavery group accused the company of buying cattle from ranches that used slave labor.

None of the children in the Packers case were hired directly by the beef company. They all worked for Packers, a third-party contractor, said JBS spokeswoman Nikki Richardson. She said JBS has severed contracts with Packers in Grand Island and Worthington, Minn. JBS has faced no penalties in the case.

“JBS USA has zero tolerance for child labor,” Richardson said. “We expect and contractually require our vendors to adhere to the same high standards that we apply to the screening and eligibility of our own workforce.”

Since 1938, U.S. federal law has prohibited employers to hire people under age 18 to work in certain hazardous occupations. It also prohibits children under 16 from working long hours or late at night.

The growth in violations comes at a moment of extraordinary scarcity in the labor market. The national unemployment rate fell to 3.4 percent in January, the lowest since 1969, and it’s even lower in places such as Nebraska. In covid-ravaged industries such as meatpacking, employers have struggled to fill vacancies, prompting lawmakers in Iowa and Minnesota recently to propose lowering the legal age at which teens may work in some dangerous jobs.

“We have never in my memory found the types of violations that are being found in hazardous occupations,” said David Weil, a professor of social policy and management at Brandeis University who was a top labor official in the Obama administration. “It’s outrageous.”

The Labor Department does not track how many child workers are immigrants, saying that is not relevant to its investigations. But advocates and industry watchdogs say immigration is a key factor in the increase.

The girl in Grand Island — who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation in the community — is among a record number of unaccompanied minors arriving at the southern border, nearly half from Guatemala, since the Biden administration exempted them from a pandemic policy that expels migrants who cross illegally.

Critics say the exemption is encouraging young people to head north, with many settling in rural areas in desperate need of workers. Grand Island, a town of 52,000 on the Nebraska plains, has received roughly 260 unaccompanied minors since 2019, according to the Department of Health and Human Services, which is responsible for placing unaccompanied minors with parents or guardians in the United States.

The girl arrived in 2021 from Joyabaj, a poverty-stricken municipality in the Guatemalan highlands. The girl and her older sister had been living with grandparents since 2016, when their mother left for Grand Island, where she works 3 p.m. to midnight as a JBS meat cutter. After five years, she paid smugglers to bring her daughters north.

The mother, who has seven children, said she wanted the girl to focus on school. But the girl said she grew bored in Grand Island and last summer applied online for the job at Packers so she could buy nice clothes and an iPhone 13.

“I like money,” the girl said with a shy smile during a recent interview in the family’s sparsely furnished living room, which is dominated by a large shrine to Jesus and the Virgin of Guadalupe. “I like to buy things.”

She said she worked at the plant for barely three months, from June 1 to Aug. 22, 2022, emptying trash and cleaning sinks. The job came to an abrupt end after a nurse at Walnut Middle School found chemical burns, blisters and open wounds on her hands and one knee, according to county prosecutors. At the time, the girl said the wounds had been caused by cleaning chemicals that soaked through her gloves and clothes. Packers officials said internal records show no report of such injuries.

The school alerted local authorities, who had received previous reports of children working at the plant. In 2016, Grand Island police were called to Walnut Middle School to investigate a 14-year-old student with injured hands, police records show. Local prosecutor Sarah Hinrichs said she reviewed a March 2022 report about another 14-year-old girl who fell asleep in class after working the night shift cleaning the JBS facility.

In the 2022 case, the girl told authorities she was abused and forced to work for Packers to repay an $8,000 bill for smuggling her north from Guatemala. Her uncle pleaded no contest to felony child abuse and is awaiting sentencing; and the aunt has yet to enter a plea. In an interview, she denied mistreating the girl.

Packers said the company was not alerted to either incident. Grand Island police said they forwarded the 2016 report to the Labor Department, but federal investigators say they have no record of that. The Labor Department staged the October raid after receiving a tip in August and interviewing some of the child workers at home and at school.

In an interview, Shannon Rebolledo said she and other investigators had no trouble spotting underage workers when they searched the Grand Island plant. Many were suited up in green rubber overalls, steel-toed boots, gloves, hard hats and goggles — a clear sign that the job was hazardous.

Some of the teens worked more than 40 hours a week in close contact with a multitude of adult employees, the Labor Department said in court records: Supervisors trained them for weeks. Security guards greeted them each night at the door. Co-workers did calisthenics with them before each shift and ate meals with them in the cafeteria.

“You’ve got people within the community seeing them coming and going late at night and arriving to school,” Rebolledo said. “All I keep thinking is: ‘How did this happen? How did no one say anything?’”

One former Packers worker who witnessed the raid told The Post that his young colleagues sometimes joked about their fake identities. He recalled one particularly childlike worker who claimed to be 37. The former worker spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of harming his prospects for future employment.

Swenson, the Packers spokesperson, said company policy requires workers to report suspicions of identity fraud so the company can investigate and terminate minor workers. She said the company was tricked into hiring the children, calling identity fraud the “only way” to circumvent Packers’ rigorous process of checking all new hires through the government’s E-Verify system.

Fake papers are a common hazard for employers. In January, a federal judge sentenced a Grand Island man from Guatemala to 15 months in federal prison for selling counterfeit driver’s licenses and Social Security cards. It is unclear whether the man, who will be deported after serving his sentence, had any link to the Packers case.

Indeed, the provenance of the fake documents remains a mystery. The girl from Joyabaj and her mother offered conflicting explanations of how the middle-schooler obtained papers saying she was 22. The mother told The Post a woman gave her daughter the documents; the girl said she got them at work. Local prosecutors have accused the mother of supplying the papers and confiscating the girl’s earnings.

Labor Department investigators said E-Verify is no shield against hiring child workers. The internet-based system allows employers to check an applicant’s eligibility to work but does not verify age. Managers who are hiring workers are responsible for scrutinizing applicants’ IDs, officials said, to make sure their faces match the photos and other identifying information.

Packers also uses software that asks applicants to confirm that they are over 18. Several applicants declined to answer that question, Labor officials said, causing the software to issue warnings that Packers disregarded.

“They’re doing a lot of blaming of documents. But they’ve demonstrated that they would not have been looking regardless,” said Michael Lazzeri, Chicago regional administrator of the Labor Department wage-and-hour division, which led the investigation.

The Packers spokesperson said that the federal government promotes E-Verify as the best way to check identities, but it is just “one among a comprehensive set of tools we use to enforce our absolute prohibition against employing anyone under the age of 18,” Swenson said.

In response to the allegations, Swenson pointed to a sworn statement from Paul DeCamp, a former Labor Department official who oversaw child labor investigations during the George W. Bush administration. DeCamp, who has been retained by Packers as an expert witness, wrote that the department had investigated Packers at least a dozen times since 2010 without finding any child labor violations, a sign that the company generally complies with federal law and that “there is in no sense a broad practice at the company of hiring minors.”

Packers officials said Labor had given them the names of only 23 of the 102 minors. “The remaining 79 were not disclosed to us, because they were allegedly former employees,” Swenson said. “Our audits and DOL’s investigation confirmed that none of the individuals DOL cited as under the age of 18 work for the company today, and many had separated from employment with PSSI multiple years ago.”

Labor officials said they declined to give Packers all 102 names for fear of retaliation against the children or their relatives. Instead, Lazzeri said investigators instructed the company to find them. “It’s really up to them to figure that out,” he said.

Lazzeri said investigators observed numerous Packers workers who appeared to be underage at the plants — far more than the 102 identified. Based on surveillance photos and investigator observations, he said, the actual number of teen workers could be “five times as many.”

Investigators did not try to track down those additional children, he said, adding: “We can only confirm so much.”

Though Rebolledo, the investigator, called Packers “the worst case that I’ve seen,” the allegations of child labor have barely rippled the civic fabric of Grand Island.

The matter has not come up at school board or city council meetings, minutes show. School officials and most school board members declined to comment, while most city councilors did not respond to phone calls from The Post. Mayor Roger Steele, a Republican, declined to be interviewed.

Vaughn Minton, a former city councilor who left office in December, said reaction was muted because JBS immediately fired Packers. “The meatpacking plant did all the changes they were required to make,” he said.

Grand Island City Councilor Jack Sheard offered another reason for the silence.

“It’s embarrassing for any community to be attached to something like this,” Sheard said. “I’ve tried to help make our community better about being more tolerant and open to immigrants, immigrant families, people who don’t look just like me. … A lot of us are embarrassed it happened here.”

Grand Island is predominantly White. Immigrants make up about 16 percent of the local population. In interviews with more than two dozen residents, business owners, church leaders and lawyers, many said rumors of child labor at the meatpacking plant had circulated for years — long before JBS bought the plant in 2007 after an immigration raid upended the city.

Former school board member Carlos Barcenas Jr. said he remembers a small number of classmates cleaning the plant at night when he was in high school in 1998. Another Grand Island resident, a migrant from Honduras who spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid being deported, said he cleaned the meatpacking plant at night in 2002 when he was 17.

“I wasn’t the only one who worked there. There were many minors,” said the man, who recalled blasting carcasses on the plant floor with chemicals for $14 an hour and napping between classes in the high school cafeteria. He said he quit after six months.

“I don’t understand how these children today … could have done something like this, because it’s really rough,” he said. “Working all night in a difficult place and then going to school.”

JBS has since donated millions for a city preschool, a high school medical program, food banks and a new bike path that leads to the plant. The company is widely viewed as a civic leader.

While none of the 27 children identified by Labor investigators still work at the plant, it is unclear what happened to most of them.

Only about a dozen were enrolled in school, according to community advocates and school staffers. Immediately after the raid, some skipped school for days to avoid talking to investigators. At least four have since dropped out, according to a school employee with direct knowledge of the situation, speaking on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the case.

Two of those students have fled town, the employee said, adding: “When the authorities came, the kids thought they would be taken away or deported.”

Labor officials said they tried to help the child workers by referring them to the schools and to other federal agencies such as HHS. They also asked the Department of Homeland Security to consider work permits and protection from deportation for current and former Packers employees. (A DHS official said the department welcomes applications, but that, so far, none have been received.)

However, caring for the minors is not part of the Labor Department’s mission, Labor officials said.

“I hope that they’re safe. I hope that, if they’re working, that they’re working under safe conditions,” Rebolledo said. “But I don’t know.”

The lack of follow-up has frustrated immigrant advocates. The Immigrant Legal Center of Nebraska asked the Department of Labor to identify the child workers so the center could provide legal assistance and help them to apply for federal aid. Labor declined, citing the children’s privacy rights, said the center’s executive director, Erik Omar.

“We are here to help. But we can’t help if we don’t know who the kids are,” Omar said.

A Labor official said the agency refers minors only “in accordance with privacy laws,” adding that the White House has announced a task force to foster better collaboration with other agencies in such cases.

As potential victims of human trafficking, the underage workers also may be entitled to federal assistance buying groceries and paying rent, said HHS spokeswoman Alyssa Jones. The mother of the girl from Joyabaj said her daughter received a letter offering such aid. But the mother, who said she cannot read or write in any language, said she was afraid the government would take her children away if the family accepted the money.

Already, the mother faces charges of child abuse for allowing the girl to work at Packers. She has pleaded guilty and faces up to one year in jail. Her $24-an-hour job at JBS — with paid holidays and benefits she had hoped to keep forever — is at stake.

One blustery day last month, the girl’s stepfather, Manuel De la Cruz, arrived at the county courthouse in downtown Grand Island for sentencing in his own misdemeanor case. He had pleaded guilty to violating child labor laws by driving the middle-schooler to a dangerous job, a charge that carries a maximum penalty of six months in jail. His lawyer asked the judge to impose a fine.

The judge, Arthur Wetzel, called the case “extremely difficult.” He accused Packers of “forcing young children to work on a kill floor.” He blamed the girl’s mother for obtaining the fake papers and collecting her pay. And he blamed “the elephant in the room, JBS,” for “hiring a cleaning company such as this.”

“However, Mr. De la Cruz, you also are at fault,” the judge said. “To have a 14-year-old daughter employed eight hours before she’s expected to attend school under dangerous circumstances simply could not be condoned by this court.”

The judge sentenced De la Cruz to 30 days in jail. After serving his time, court records show, he could be deported. Through his lawyer, he declined to comment.

An officer’s handcuffs clicked open. At the back of the courtroom, De la Cruz’s 19-year-old stepdaughter sobbed. Outside, his wife and young children watched as he was led away.

The 14-year-old girl did not attend the hearing. For the moment, at least, she was still in school.

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