Jeffrey (Jeff) H. Ruzal, Member of the Firm in the Employment, Labor & Workforce Management practice, in the firm’s New York office, was quoted in the Bloomberg Law Daily Labor Report, in “Perdue, Tyson Foods Face ‘Unique’ Probe in Child Labor Crackdown,” by Rebecca Rainey.
Following is an excerpt:
The US Department of Labor’s rare inclusion of meatpacking giants Tyson Foods Inc. and Perdue Farms Inc. in its investigations of subcontractor child labor violations signals a significant escalation in its fight to protect minors from dangerous working conditions.
The agency confirmed that its Wage and Hour Division is currently probing the companies as it delves into allegations that their subcontractors are illegally allowing children as young as 13 to work overnight to clean equipment in the meat companies’ facilities in Eastern Virginia.
It’s the latest case in recent months where the DOL has found children, particularly undocumented migrant children, working in unsafe conditions often at late hours. Over the past year alone, the agency has closed cases involving more than 4,000 kids employed in jobs they’re not legally able to have, spanning multiple industries including meatpacking, fast-food, and construction.
But the move to investigate Tyson and Perdue appears to be the first time the agency has attempted to hold a parent company jointly liable for the child labor violations committed by a subcontractor, after launching an enhanced child labor enforcement initiative earlier this year. In past cases, the agency has only cited the contractor that directly employed the children, not the parent company that hired the contractor to do the work.
The agency began its probe of the companies after a New York Times investigation brought to light the details of underage workers. …
The injuries that occurred at Tyson’s Eastern Virginia plant add to a string of unlawful child labor discovered at other Tyson locations.
The meat company also operates two of the facilities where children were found working overnight cleaning for subcontractor Packers Sanitation Services last year. Despite garnering national attention, the DOL fined Packers $1.5 million while the owners of the factories faced no penalties.
Shortly after announcing fines in that case, DOL leaders in February vowed the agency would be “applying further scrutiny to companies who conduct business with employers and staffing agencies that use illegal child labor” as part of a special child enforcement initiative with the Department of Health and Human Services.
In the ensuing months, the DOL’s wage division has continued to bring child labor violations against contractors and franchisees. But companies hiring the contractors and the brands behind franchise operating agreements were able to duck joint liability for child labor violations happening in their facilities or under their corporate seal.
“Joint employment liability in child labor does not appear commonplace,” said Jeffrey Ruzal, a former trial attorney in the DOL’s solicitor’s office. “But I’m certainly not surprised that the DOL is taking this position where the health and safety of minors is at issue.”
“It’s a unique development,” he added, noting that in cases of child labor violations “typically you only hear about the direct employer and not necessarily employees of third parties or staffing companies who are being supplied to a third party joint employer.” …
The DOL declined to comment further as to why it’s opened child labor cases into the meatpacking companies now, despite violations occurring at Tyson facilities in Arkansas and Tennessee last year.
The growing frequency of violations at Tyson plants may have been the final straw for enforcement officials.
Ruzal, now a management-side attorney at Epstein Becker & Green P.C., said the escalation in the Tyson case makes sense within the typical strategy the Solicitor’s Office would deploy in repeat cases, based on the progression in penalties that are available under the Fair Labor Standards Act.
“In the first instance, it focused on the staffing company, the labor supplier, because as the direct employer, it was responsible for ensuring that it was not employing and then staffing minors in certain occupations which were deemed dangerous and or prohibited,” Ruzal said.
“And then in the second instance, when that fine simply wasn’t enough to stop labor suppliers from continuing to source workers to the third parties, well then the DOL similarly takes the position of ‘Okay, now we’re going to look at everybody,’” he said.