A state court in Minnesota’s Fifth Judicial District has been asked in a 16-page complaint by the Minnesota Department of Labor and Industry (DLI) for a temporary restraining order and injunction against Tony Downs Food Company, a meat and poultry processor.

The state wants to stop the company from illegally employing children in hazardous occupations while DLI continues its investigation into the company’s labor practices.

Since late 2022, more than a dozen meat-packing plants have been caught using child labor, some for dangerous overnight jobs that impact food safety because they involve cleaning equipment.

The Mankato-based Tony Downs Food Company produces packaged meats at Madelia, MN

Children younger than 18 In Minnesota are not permitted to work in any job that is hazardous or detrimental to a minor.

The state’s labor department found at least eight children ranging from 14 to 17 years of age working at the Tony Downs plant in Madelia. And it identified additional employees who were hired to work for the company when they were younger than 18 years of age. These employees, one of whom was only 13 years old when hired, perform hazardous work such as operating meat grinders, ovens, and forklifts for the company during overnight shifts, which lasted until 1 or 2 a.m.

The child laborers also work in cold temperatures where meat products are flash-frozen using carbon dioxide and ammonia, according to the labor department. The company’s injury reports showed children have been injured while working in these hazardous occupations.

In response to a complaint provided to the labor department regarding the company’s practice of employing minors, DLI investigators conducted an overnight on-site investigation of Tony Downs Food Company on Jan. 26 and into the early morning of Jan. 27, 2023. DLI interviewed workers in Spanish, documented working conditions, and demanded records from the company. DLI also contacted school districts in the area for additional information.

Following the on-site inspection, the company produced records for DLI throughout February 2023. The records included employee photographs and contact information, employee schedules, and employee time cards. DLI initiated an intensive review of the company documents and the information provided by schools, comparing the data to identify employees under the age of 18. 

“Child labor laws exist so that when children are introduced to employment, it is in a safe environment and the work advances the economic, social, and educational development of our youngest workers,” said DLI Commissioner Nicole Blissenbach.

“When child labor laws are violated, the best interests of our children are being tossed to the wayside to advance the interests of an employer. The consequences of child labor violations are substantial, from directly endangering safety and health to lifelong consequences related to impaired education access. It is our moral obligation to protect children, which is why our agency focuses its efforts strategically to initiate investigations in industries where child labor violations are most likely to occur.”

DLI has a variety of enforcement tools at its disposal, including injunctions, penalties, and criminal referrals when warranted.

“DLI is thankful for the representation of the Attorney General’s Office,” said Blissenbach. “Having dedicated and skilled representation allows us to turn our complex investigations into action and hold these employers accountable.”

“DLI’s allegations about child labor at this site are appalling. I applaud their investigation and am proud to represent them in bringing this action to court,” said Attorney General Keith Ellison. “Child labor – especially in dangerous industries, especially when employers exploit children and families from vulnerable communities – is an extremely serious social and economic ill that has ripple effects in every community. It will take every level of government working cooperatively together, along with industry and public pressure, to solve it.”

The Minnesota Child Labor Standards Act prohibits employers from employing minors in hazardous occupations. It also restricts employers from working minors younger than 16 years of age after 9 p.m., more than eight hours a day, or more than 40 hours a week.

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