Parents of teen allowed to take job at meatpacking plant guilty of child abuse

April 5, 2023, noon ·

Parent appears in Hall County Court for sentencing
In Hall County Court, the parent who is accused of allowing their child to work in a dangerous job, appears for sentencing. A translator assisted via a video feed. The parent is obscured. (Photo: Bill Kelly, Nebraska Public Media)

The parents of a 14-year-old Grand Island child admitted during recent court hearings they helped arrange for their daughter to take a job they knew was hazardous, cleaning machinery in meatpacking plants.

The couple pleaded guilty in Hall County Court to child abuse by violating state child labor laws.

Her mother, who appeared before County Judge Alfred Corey on Wednesday, will be under house arrest for two months, followed by a year of supervised probation.

In February, the girl's stepfather began a 30-day sentence in the Hall County Jail.

The names of the parents have been withheld in this article to protect the identity of the victim.

Aerial view of the JBS Beef meatpacking plant in Grand Island, Nebraska
Aerial view of the JBS Beef meatpacking plant in Grand Island, Nebraska (Photo: JBS)

The Hall County Attorney filed charges against the parents in August 2022. The cases only recently came to light.

Charging individuals with child abuse linked to dangerous working conditions appear quite rare in the state. Nebraska Public Media asked the state's judicial system to search court records. They reported only five cases in the last ten years in which charges involved violations of child labor laws. The statutes have been part of state law since 1907.

Of the 27 known minors involved in hazardous work at JBS Beef in Grand Island., these are the only parents or guardians charged with child abuse. Packers Sanitation Inc. was subcontracted by JBS and is the company which hired the teenagers.

During the stepfather's sentencing, Hall County Court Judge Arthur Wetzel said, "There's a lot of blame that goes around in a case of this nature."

The role of the parents in getting their daughter a dangerous job with a slaughterhouse came to the attention of local law enforcement a year ago. According to court records, teachers and staff at a Grand Island middle school raised concerns about the student falling asleep during the day and missing class to treat what appeared to be chemical burns.  

A Nebraska State Patrol investigation determined the mother provided the plant with falsified documents claiming her daughter was 22 years old. At the time, she was only 14 and three months old. According to a pre-sentencing report quoted in court, the girl's earnings remained in her mother's possession.

The mother declined the opportunity to explain her guilty plea during her sentencing. Her attorney, Daniel Reeker, told the judge that the mother admitted she obtained her daughter’s fake IDs. She also insisted the young girl wanted a job.

“The daughter wanted to work to buy the things that she wanted," Reeker said, explaining her parents felt the girl was just a "typical teenager” looking to make some money. He added the mother was not blaming the girl for putting herself in a dangerous circumstance. He said the parents allowed the girl to keep the money.

Assistant County Attorney Katherine Collins told the judge she had concerns the mother was minimizing the seriousness of the matter and wondered if she might continue to allow the daughter to take dangerous jobs.

The girl was driven to the JBS plant by her stepfather. She worked from 11:00 p.m. to 5:00 a.m., five to six days a week, cleaning machines used to cut meat before going to school. At the time of his sentencing, the stepfather declined, through a K'iche interpreter, to make a statement in court. Judge Wetzel told the stepfather, "You accept little to no responsibility for your involvement," but acknowledged the man's history, including being forced to take a job while still in the first grade.

By requiring jail time, the judge issued a harsher sentence than recommended by the county prosecutor, who suggested only a fine as punishment.

Judge Wetzel told the stepfather, "any sentence other than the one I'm about to pronounce would depreciate the seriousness of the offense."

The judge also noted the shared responsibility of "the elephant in the room." referring to the management of JBS Beef, which "is at blame for hiring a cleaning company such as this to conduct their affairs."

Three photos taken by labor inspectors showing workers cleaning meatpacking plants in Nebraska and Wisconsin.
Photos taken by federal workplace inspectors showing workers cleaning meatpacking plants in Grand Island, NE (left, right) and Wisconsin. (center) (Photo: Dept of Labor)

The case focused national attention on Packers Sanitation, Inc., the company which hired the teenagers. The U.S. Department of Labor recently levied a $1.5 million fine against Packers for employing at least 102 minors for hazardous, late-night work done at 13 different meatpacking plants, including JBS Beef in Grand Island.

JBS hired the sub-contractor, who employed teenagers as young as 13 to clean machinery used to skin, drain blood, and butcher thousands of cattle daily.

According to Federal Court filings, U.S. Department of Labor inspectors, during the surprise October inspection of the Grand Island plant, "witnessed multiple workers… who appeared to be minors based on their stature and appearance." Later interviews and document checks indicated at least 27 minors worked for the sub-contractor at the JBS facility.

When the fines were announced, the Department's wage and hour division said in a news release that inspectors "found that children were working with hazardous chemicals and cleaning meat processing equipment including back saws, brisket saws, and head splitters."

Packers Sanitation, in a statement released in March 2023, "no previous Grand Island employees work for the company today" and said new technologies would bolster its "absolute prohibition" against hiring minors.

Nick Grandgenett is an attorney for Nebraska Appleseed. The organization advocates for justice in immigration policy, health care, and child welfare.

Charging the parents with crimes won’t address the root cause of the problem, he said.

“Our core concern is that Packer Sanitation (PSSI) is being held accountable. It's PSSI that is ultimately responsible for the workplace safety of their worksite that they were managing and maintaining,” Grandgenett said.

He said local and national investigations should focus on PSSI’s actions.

“I think that wherever the failure was, it was within PSSI,” Grandgenett said.

When PSSI’s penalties were reported in February, U.S. Department of Labor officials said the cleaning company flagged some workers as minors. The company didn’t act any further, however.

In February, it was reported that Packer Sanitation will be required to hire an outside compliance specialist to ensure the company follows child labor laws. This was part of the punishment handed down from the Department of Labor’s investigation last fall and this winter.

In general, Grandgenett said the meatpacking industry needs to be more transparent about hiring and other business practices. But, he said this DOL requirement makes sense and is an encouraging step in the right direction.

As far as the larger issue of the law, Grandgenett points out areas that could be improved.

“I think some of the mechanisms that immigration attorneys have to rely on at the moment are only going to be able to help the children. But, it's possible that the families and the children need those same sorts of resources,” Grandgenett said. “So, there might need to be an immigration strategy for the parents as well. It's hard for a child to feel safe if they know that they can be protected by the law, but that their parents can't be protected by the law.”