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Kids used sharp knives, power equipment: California poultry plant to pay $3.5M fine

A Southern California poultry processor will pay $3.8 million in back wages and fines after the federal government uncovered numerous labor violations, including that the company illegally employed children as young as 14 to work with sharp knives.

Exclusive Poultry Inc., a major supplier to several large supermarket and food distributor chains, is among the companies owned by Tony E. Bran that were found to be engaging in several alleged illegal practices, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

Among the revelations, the investigation found that Bran's businesses employed minors in dangerous jobs, retaliated against workers who cooperated with investigators and refused to pay overtime wages.

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Child labor: Children used sharp knives, operated power equipment

The Department of Labor alleges that children as young as 14 were put to work at the plant, where they used sharp knives to debone poultry and operated power-driven lifts to move pallets. The investigation also found that the minors worked more hours than are permitted under child labor laws, according to the labor department.

Bran's companies are also accused of cutting the wages of workers who cooperated with investigators and failing to pay proper overtime wages ‒ instead paying employees who worked 50 or 60 hours a week a fixed or hourly rate. Investigators also found that the company did not maintain required records when they "intentionally omitted workers from payroll records," the labor department said.

“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, administrator of the labor department’s Wage and Hour Division, which investigated and litigated the complaint.

Poultry plants will pay $3.8 million in wages, fines

The Department of Labor's investigation included two poultry plants that Bran controlled in City of Industry and La Puente where he set up several "front companies" to employ workers, the agency said.

Those companies were Meza Poultry, Valtierra Poultry, Sullon Poultry Inc. and Nollus’s Poultry.

Bran, the companies and the listed owners of the front companies are subject to a consent judgment entered Nov. 16 by the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California. The judgment prevents them from shipping any poultry that was produced in violation of labor laws and requires that they be monitored for three years to ensure compliance.

As part of the judgment, workers who were fired after investigators inspected the plants are to get preferential hiring for any open positions, the labor department said.

Bran and The Exclusive Poultry also agreed to pay $3.8 million. That total includes $300,000 in punitive damages and $100,614 in back wages to workers, while another $201,104 is considered a penalty for the child labor violations, the department said.

Child labor violations on the rise

The investigation's conclusion comes at a time when child labor violations appear to be on the rise, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

The agency noted a 69% increase in children being employed illegally by companies, despite the federal law banning the practice since 1938. In fiscal year 2022, the department found 835 companies it investigated had employed more than 3,800 children in violation of labor laws.

In July, the labor department began investigating the death of a 16-year-old worker at a Mississippi poultry plant. The teen, who was killed when he became entangled in machinery that he was cleaning, was part of the sanitation crew at the factory in Hattiesburg, a city in the southern portion of the state near the coast.

“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," Looman said.

Any current or former employees at Exclusive Poultry who believe they may be owed back wages can call the Wage and Hours Division’s West Covina District Office at 626-966-0478

Eric Lagatta covers breaking and trending news for USA TODAY. Reach him at elagatta@gannett.com

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Child labor violations fined at poultry processor in California