Meat processing plant fined nearly $400,000 over child labor violations

A federal court has ordered a meat processor in the City of Industry and a staffing agency in Downey to turn over $327,484 in illegal profits associated with child labor, and fined the companies an additional $62,516 in penalties.

The U.S. Department of Labor obtained the court order last week after it investigated A&J Meats and The Right Hire, which helps companies find employees. Investigators concluded that children as young as 15 were working in the processing plant, where they were required to use sharp knives as well as work inside freezers and coolers, in violation of federal child labor regulations.

The two companies also scheduled the children to work at times not permitted by law. Children worked at the facility more than three hours a day on school days, past 7 p.m. and more than 18 hours a week while school was in session, according to a news release from the Department of Labor.

Marc Pilotin, western regional solicitor at the Department of Labor, said the meat processor and staffing agency "knowingly endangered these children’s safety and put their companies’ profits before the well-being of these minors," according to the news release.

“These employers egregiously violated federal law and now, both have learned about the serious consequences for those who so callously expose children to harm," he said.

Federal law prevents companies from employing minors in dangerous occupations, including most jobs in meat and poultry slaughtering, processing, rendering and packing factories.

The judgment obtained in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California is part of a settlement the Labor Department reached with the companies. It also forbids A&J Meats, its owner Priscilla Helen Castillo and The Right Hire staffing agency from trying to trade goods connected to "oppressive child labor."

As part of the settlement agreement, Castillo and the two companies will be required to provide annual training to employees on federal labor law for at least four years and submit to monitoring by an independent third party for three years.

Yesenia Dominguez, owner of The Right Hire, denied the claims made by the Department of Labor, saying her company did not hire any minors. She said her employees are trained to ask for documentation from workers' home countries that lists their ages, since often they are migrants and might be undocumented.

"Those allegations aren’t true," she said. "We do business by the book."

Dominguez said she felt the government "gave us no choice but to settle.”

A&J Meats did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The Labor Department has investigated other meat processing plants in California in the last year connected to Castillo's father, Tony Elvis Bran.

In December, federal investigators found grueling working conditions at two poultry plants in City of Industry and La Puente operated by Exclusive Poultry Inc., as well as other “front companies” owned by Bran.

Children as young as 14 stood for long hours cutting and deboning poultry and operating heavy machinery, the labor department said. The workers came primarily from Indigenous communities in Guatemala.

The poultry processor, which supplies grocery stores including Ralphs and Aldi, was ordered to pay nearly $3.8 million in fines and back wages.

Sign up for our Wide Shot newsletter to get the latest entertainment business news, analysis and insights.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.