Tony Downs says it will takes steps to keep children from working

Mar. 16—MADELIA — Responding to a complaint by Minnesota officials that Tony Downs in Madelia employed children as young as 13 to operate meat grinders, ovens and a forklift, the company said it will take any steps needed to ensure underage workers don't slip through its verification system.

A statement from David Ross, vice president of human resources, said that the company's interest "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."

He said in the news release that the company is fully cooperating with the 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."

Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison on Wednesday applied to the courts for a temporary restraining order against Tony Downs, alleging that at least eight children younger than 18 were working overnight or on shifts ending in the early morning hours at the plant in Madelia. Two are reportedly ages 14 and 15, and six are 16 and 17. The 14-year-old began work there at age 13, according to Minnesota Department of Labor and Industry investigators.

The Madelia plant had 450 employees and a total of 1,000 employees in southern Minnesota, according to a 2020 Free Press story.

The Madelia plant makes canned, pouched and frozen proteins, mainly chicken, but some beef, pork and turkey. The Fairmont plant makes a variety of microwavable meals.

Minnesota Public Radio News reports that in late January Minnesota labor department investigators responded to a complaint and visited the plant at about 11 p.m. on a Thursday night and interviewed employees in Spanish. They also reviewed company documents as well as information provided by schools to identify the employees, learn ages, and in the case of the company, confirm schedules.

The young employees, one of whom was 13 years old when hired, operated meat grinders, ovens and forklifts on overnight shifts and also worked in areas where meat products are flash frozen with carbon monoxide and ammonia, according to the complaint. They also allegedly worked longer hours than permitted by law.

The company's reports showed some children have been injured while working in the dangerous areas, according to the complaint.

"Child labor laws exist so that when children are introduced to employment, it is in a safe environment and the work advances the economic, social and educational development of our youngest workers," Department of Labor and Industry Commissioner Nicole Blissenbach said in a statement. "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."

The investigation is continuing.

The labor department, which is working with the attorney general, can issue injunctions, penalties and criminal referrals against companies when warranted.

This article contains information from Minnesota Public Radio News.main story