Minnesota labor regulators sue meat packing plant for employing children in hazardous jobs

The Minnesota Department of Labor and Industry is seeking a temporary restraining order against Tony Downs Food in southern Minnesota

By: - March 16, 2023 12:31 pm

Creative commons photo via Pxhere.com

State regulators filed a lawsuit on Wednesday against Tony Downs Food Company in state court, alleging the company employs at least eight children in its Madelia plant.

The children, ranging in age from 14 to 17, perform hazardous work such as operating meat grinders, ovens and forklifts during overnight shifts, according to the lawsuit brought by the Minnesota Department of Labor and Industry. Underage workers also work in cold temperatures with dangerous chemicals like ammonia to freeze meat products and have been injured on the job.

“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,” DLI Commissioner Nicole Blissenbach said in a statement.

Tony Downs said it is cooperating with state regulators and “familiarizing” itself with the court filing.

“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,” a statement from Tony Downs said.

Tony Downs Food is the latest meat packing plant accused of employing children.

Last month, federal labor regulators reported more than 100 children were illegally employed in meat processing facilities in eight states, including at Buckhead Meat in St. Cloud, Turkey Valley Farms in Marshall and JBS Pork in Worthington.

The children were employed by Packers Sanitation Services, which paid $1.5 million in civil penalties following the investigation by the U.S. Department of Labor.

A recent New York Times investigation found large numbers of migrant children are working dangerous jobs in factories across the country, making products for some of America’s biggest brands like Minneapolis-based General Mills.

State labor regulators began investigating Tony Downs’ Madelia plant in southern Minnesota after receiving information that the company was knowingly employing children, according to the lawsuit. DLI received information that the children were using assumed names and not native English speakers.

Investigators inspected the plant on Jan. 26 during an overnight shift and saw workers who appeared to be underage operating heavy machinery. Investigators also subpoenaed records from Tony Downs and local schools.

Of the eight current underage employees DLI investigators identified, one is 14 years old and began working at the plant at age 13. The children regularly worked until the early morning hours, more than eight hours a day and more than 40 hours a week, according to the lawsuit.

State labor regulators have also identified more employees who are now 18 and older but worked at Tony Downs as minors in the past two years. One 18-year-old worker began at the plant at 15 years old and has been injured three times on the job.

In the lawsuit, DLI said their investigation is ongoing and asked a judge to order the company to stop employing children in violation of state law and to take any necessary steps to prevent child labor violations in the future.

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Max Nesterak
Max Nesterak

Max Nesterak is the deputy editor of the Reformer and reports on labor and housing. Previously, he was an associate producer for Minnesota Public Radio after a stint at NPR. He also co-founded the Behavioral Scientist and was a Fulbright Scholar to Berlin, Germany.