Minnesota children illegally hired to work overnight at meat processing plant: Lawsuit

The Minnesota Department of Labor and Industry (DLI) alleges an investigation uncovered Tony Downs Foods Company hired children to work hazardous jobs at a meat processing facility in southern Minnesota.

The lawsuit filed in court on Wednesday alleges investigators found at least 8 minors who are currently working at the meat processing facility in Madelina, a city 22 miles southwest of Mankato. The children ranged in age from 14 to 17 years old.

In addition to the current minor employees, the DLI identified multiple child labor violations involving employees who are now over 18 years old or no longer work for the company but were employed between January 2021-23, the time frame in which the DLI is focusing its investigation.

The DLI filed a request for an injunction and temporary restraining order against Tony Downs Foods while they continue to investigate the company for allegedly employing children to work overnight shifts at their meat processing plant, the lawsuit alleges.  

"DLI’s investigation indicates that Tony Downs’ current employment of minor children is not an isolated occurrence," the lawsuit alleges.

The investigation

The DLI began investigating Tony Downs Food after receiving a complaint children were hired to work overnight shifts in hazardous conditions including operating large machines such as meat grinders, ovens, and forklifts, the lawsuit says. 

During the investigation, DLI spoke with the employees, documented working conditions, and requested records from the company, including injury reports. The DLI said children have been injured while working at the plant, including one minor who was injured at least three times, according to the lawsuit. 

As part of the investigation, the DLI went to the plant during an overnight shift in January 2023 and said they observed what appeared to be several young-looking employees working around large machinery and working in the colder part of the facility where meat is frozen using chemicals like dioxide and ammonia.

DLI investigators said the children were working under assumed names and were "not native English speakers," the lawsuit reads.

RELATED: Minnesota children illegally hired to clean slaughterhouses: federal lawsuit

As part of the investigation, DLI contacted school districts in the area for additional information on the minors. They spoke with school staff to determine if they were concerned about students’ possible performance issues, missing school, and falling asleep in class from working overnight shifts. The school staff agreed they had concerns, the lawsuit states. 

"Minnesota’s child labor standards are important to foster children’s social and educational development. Allowing children to work overnight shifts and into the early morning hours hinders a student’s ability to focus and excel in school. Children working overnight are more at risk for skipping class and dropping out of school entirely," the lawsuit read. 

What the law says

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

The DLI requested the court to impose an injunction and temporary restraining order against Tony Downs Foods from employing children and violating the Child Labor Standards Acts. 

RELATED: Company fined $387K for hiring children to clean slaughterhouses in Minnesota

The DLI also requested the company take necessary steps to fix any current violations and prevent it from happening further by reviewing and revising policies and procedures, training its employees, and monitoring its compliance with the Child Labor Standards Act. 

"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," said DLI Commissioner Nicole Blissenbach in a statement. "The consequences of child labor violations are substantial, from directly endangering safety and health to lifelong consequences related to impaired education access."

Statement from Tony Downs Foods

Tony Downs Foods released the following statement to FOX 9:

"Today we were informed by the Minnesota Department of Labor that it has filed to obtain a temporary restraining order related to alleged employment of underage workers at our Madelia, Minn., plant.  At this time we are familiarizing ourselves with the details of the Department of Labor’s 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. 

"In keeping with our commitment to operating with the highest integrity and transparency, we have cooperated fully with the Minnesota Department of Labor’s 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. 

"We have an unwavering commitment to regulatory compliance. Comprehensive systems are in place to ensure complete compliance with Department of Labor and other regulatory agency policies and standards, this includes having systems in place to ensure all of our employees are legally able to work."