State Says Meat Processing Company Violated Child Labor Law
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State Says Meat Processing Company Violated Child Labor Law

Minnesota's labor department has asked a court to require Tony Downs Food Company to end its alleged illegal employment of children in hazardous occupations.

The Minnesota Department of Labor and Industry (DLI) has filed a complaint against meat processing company Tony Downs Foods alleging the Madelia-based company has violated child labor laws.

The complaint filed in Watonwan County District Court Wednesday, March 15, asks the court to issue a temporary restraining order and injunction against the company to require it to stop “illegally employing children in hazardous occupations.” The DLI asked this injunction be placed as it continues an ongoing investigation into Tony Downs Food Company’s labor practices.

Thus far in the investigation, which started in January, the DLI says it found Tony Downs Food Company’s Madelia facility employs at least eight children between 14 and 17 years old, one of whom was hired at age 13.

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

The DLI says it found that children at the Madelia facility were performing hazardous work such as operating meat grinders, ovens, and forklifts for the company during overnight shifts. These shifts end as late as 2 a.m. The minors also worked in cold temperatures where meat products are flash-frozen using carbon dioxide and ammonia, according to the state. The company’s injury reports showed children have been injured while working in these conditions, according to the complaint.

In a statement sent to TCB, a Tony Downs Food Company representative said they learned of the complaint Wednesday and are currently familiarizing themselves with the case. “Our intent is always to comply with the law and, based on what we learn, we will take any actions that are necessary to ensure that we do so,” the statement reads.

The company says it has fully cooperated with the DLI investigation: “We strive to ensure that all who work in our plant meet all required employment criteria, including being of legal age. People who are underage should be in schools, not working in manufacturing facilities. We intend to take decisive action to root out what may have enabled any underage workers to circumvent our hiring process and verification requirements which include providing government-issued photo IDs as evidence that they were 18 or older.”

The DLI investigation was launched in January in response to a complaint received by the department. An overnight on-site investigation was conducted on Jan. 26 and into the early morning of Jan. 27, according to a DLI news release. During this investigation, DLI investigators interviewed workers in Spanish, documented working conditions, and demanded records from the company, according to the complaint. DLI also contacted school districts in the area for additional information.

Following the on-site inspection, the company provided records to the DLI, which included employee photographs and contact information, employee schedules, and employee time cards, according to the release. This 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,” DLI Commissioner Nicole Blissenbach said in the news release. “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.”

To be sure, Tony Downs Foods is just one of the growing number of companies accused of violating child labor laws. In an investigative report published late last monthThe New York Times documented several cases of other factories relying on child labor. That included General Mills contractor Hearthside Food Solutions, according to the newspaper. And late last year, the Star Tribune looked into child labor violations at meatpacking plants in Worthington, where such practices were essentially an open secret.