A poultry processor and supplier in Southern California has agreed to pay nearly $3.8 million in penalties and damages after an investigation found that the firm employed minors in “dangerous jobs,” the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) announced on Monday.
The agency said in a statement a that the company, known as The Exclusive Poultry Inc., hired children as young as 14 to debone poultry with sharp knives and operate power-driven lifts to move pallets.
Officials also found that minors worked “excessive hours” in violation of federal child labor regulations, and employers retaliated against workers who cooperated with DOL investigators by cutting their wages.
Investigators have also accused employers of refusing 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-hour weeks. They also found that employers failed to maintain required records when they omitted workers from payroll records.
“The Exclusive Poultry and owner Tony Bran willfully withheld workers’ hard-earned wages, endangered young workers, and retaliated against employees to conceal their wrongdoing,” said Jessica Looman, acting head of the DOL’s Wage and Hour Division.
“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,” she added.
In addition to the nearly $3.8 million in fines, the settlement’s terms also require Mr. Bran and The Exclusive Poultry to be monitored for three years to ensure future compliance. Meanwhile, employers also must offer workers who were fired from the poultry processor following the investigation hiring preference before they are allowed to hire other people.
According to the judgment, Mr. Bran and The Exclusive Poultry must pay $3.5 million in back wages and damages to affected workers. Of that total, $300,000 will be in punitive damages, while back wages totaling more than $100,000 will be paid to employees who faced retaliatory conduct.
In addition, employers must also pay more than $200,000 in civil penalties assessed by the agency’s division for child labor and willful violations.
The company’s lawyer, meanwhile, told NBC News that his client did not know whether children had been employed at the poultry processor, noting the $3.8 million agreement with the federal government was “in the best interest of moving forward.”
“These were just allegations and the case was in its infancy. We were just beginning to do our own discovery to understand whether or not these allegations were true,” the company’s attorney Anthony McClaren told the network.
Mr. McClaren also said that the company is effectively out of business following the DOL’s recent judgment.
The investigation was initially launched last year after an adult worker reported unpaid wages to the DOL, according to court documents.
The judgment comes several months after the DOL received a preliminary injunction and temporary restraining order against The Exclusive Poultry, preventing the company from shipping any “hot goods” into commerce and any goods from a location where the department observed child labor.
“When employers build a business based on wage theft or violations of child labor laws, goods they produce become illegal contraband that cannot be shipped into commerce,” Marc Pilot, the agency’s solicitor of labor in San Francisco, said in a statement.
“The Solicitor’s Office will use all tools it has to prevent and halt the shipment of such ‘hot goods,’ which insidiously harms workers and competition in the marketplace,” he added.
The Exclusive Poultry, which is based in La Puente, California, supplies supermarkets and food distributors that sell chicken products such as Aldi, Sysco Co., and Kroger-owned Ralphs.