Monetary penalties for hiring children to do dangerous jobs are continuing to climb, but meat and poultry companies are just not over their appetite for child labor. A Los Angeles-area poultry processor is the latest to pay up, with $3.8 million in back wages, damages, and penalties.
Ever since federal penalties totaling $1.5 million were imposed earlier this year on 13 meat plants contracting in eight states with Packers Sanitation Services Inc. for employing children in critical food safety jobs, the number of children involved in these investigations has been on the rise.
The federal Labor Department alone has 800 child labor investigations underway, with 5,792 minors found working in violations of the law. The FBI and Homeland Security may be involved in those cases and others for human trafficking
A California poultry processor and supplier to supermarkets and food distributors — including Ralphs, ALDI, Grocery Outlet, and SYSCO Corp. — has now agreed to pay nearly $3.8 million in back wages, damages, and penalties after the U.S. Department of Labor found child labor violations.
Exclusive Poultry Inc. and related companies established by owner Tony Bran employed children as young as 14 to debone poultry using sharp knives and operate power-driven lifts to move pallets.
Bran and Exclusive Poultry are subject to a consent judgment entered by the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California on Nov. 16, 2023, after an investigation and litigation by the department.
The investigation included two poultry plants controlled by Bran in the City of Industry and La Puente, CA. Investigators found that Bran set up several front companies to employ workers at these plants. Those front companies were Meza Poultry LLC, Valtierra Poultry LLC, Sullon Poultry Inc., and Nollus’s Poultry LLC. The department has also obtained consent judgments against these companies and their owners.
The judgments resolve the lawsuit filed by the department based on the division’s findings that, in addition to their unlawful employment of children and retaliation against workers, the employers failed to pay workers their required wages.
Specifically, the division determined that Bran, Exclusive Poultry, and their associated companies willfully failed to pay required overtime wages to their employees, paying them either a piece rate or a straight-time hourly rate even when they worked 50 or 60 hours per week. Investigators also found the employers failed to maintain required records when they intentionally omitted workers from payroll records.
Upon substantiating the child labor and overtime violations, the department’s Office of the Solicitor obtained from the U.S. District Court a temporary restraining order and an injunction to prevent Bran and Exclusive Poultry from shipping into commerce any “hot goods,” in this case, poultry produced in violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act and any goods from a location where the department observed child labor.
“The department will not hesitate to invoke the hot goods provision of the Fair Labor Standards Act — including perishable goods — to combat the scourges of wage theft and child labor in our economy,” said Solicitor of Labor Seema Nanda. “Employers who violate the FLSA and their downstream distributors and customers should be on notice that we will use all tools at our disposal to protect workers, regardless of age and immigration status. We encourage workers to come forward and report employers that withhold workers’ wages or put their safety at risk.”
As directed by the consent judgment, Bran and Exclusive Poultry must pay $3.5 million in back wages and damages to affected workers. Of that total, $300,000 in punitive damages and $100,614 in back wages will be paid to workers who faced retaliatory conduct. In addition, the employers must pay $201,104 in civil money penalties assessed by the division for child labor and willful violations.
The judgment also requires Bran and Exclusive Poultry to retain a monitor for three years to ensure future compliance and to show a hiring preference for those workers they fired following the department’s search of the poultry plants. Under that preference, Bran and Exclusive Poultry must offer these workers employment before hiring others.
“Exclusive Poultry and owner Tony Bran willfully withheld workers’ hard-earned wages, endangered young workers, and retaliated against employees to conceal their wrongdoing,” explained Wage and Hour Administrator Jessica Looman. “The Wage and Hour Division will continue to work at every level of the industry to prevent employers or retailers from exploiting workers, including children, for profit.”
Child labor laws exist to safeguard young workers from workplace exploitation and prevent avoidable tragedies. The U.S. Department of Labor and its partners from the Interagency Task Force to Combat Child Labor Exploitation remain committed to holding companies accountable for violating federal child labor laws.
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