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Minors again found working at Alabama poultry plant where 16-year-old died, Department of Labor says

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(NEW YORK) — Investigators allegedly again found minors working on the kill floor of a poultry plant owned by the company that was found responsible for the death of a teenager last year, according to court filings.

Department of Labor investigators said they discovered on May 1 “oppressive child labor” at the poultry plant in Alabama, “namely children working on the kill floor deboning poultry and cutting carcasses,” after obtaining a civil search warrant.

“The children had been working at the facility for months,” the filing said.

According to court documents, the company, Mar-Jac Poultry, denied knowing it had any employees who were under 18 years.

In a statement to ABC News, Mar-Jac said the minors were hired with documents “that showed they were over 18 years of age.”

“Mar-Jac will continue to vigorously defend itself and expects to prevail in this matter,” the company said. “Mar-Jac is committed to complying with all relevant law.”

The Department of Labor is seeking a court order to stop the company from selling and shipping “poultry tainted by oppressive child labor” from the company’s plant in Alabama, according to court filings.

Federal regulators had earlier this year called the July 2023 death of Duvan Perez, a 16-year-old who died while cleaning a poultry processing machine at a Mar-Jac facility, “a preventable, dangerous situation” that no worker should have been in, “let alone a child.”

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration cited Mar-Jac Poultry with 14 serious and three “other than serious” violations and proposed $212,646 in penalties for Perez’s death. The agency previously cited the company for an incident in 2021 in which an employee who was not a minor suffered fatal injuries while working.

Perez’s mother filed in January a wrongful death lawsuit against Mar-Jac and two of its employees, along with the agency that hired Perez. The lawsuit alleges that Perez was killed due to Mar-Jac ignoring safety regulations. The suit claims the defendants “acted intentionally, willfully, wantonly, knowingly, with malice and/or were grossly negligent and in reckless disregard to the rights and the safety of the decedent and others similarly situated.”

Court records reviewed by ABC News said the company’s Hattiesburg plant was also sued twice in recent years by people who alleged they had sustained injuries at the plant. One of the lawsuits, filed in December 2022, is scheduled for a jury trial in August. In the other lawsuit, which was filed by a veterinarian for the Department of Agriculture who allegedly fell during an inspection, a jury found in favor of the defendant, Mar-Jac.

The Alabama plant was cited in December by OSHA for a serious violation after an employee was injured.

According to the Department of Labor, last year 5,800 children were employed in violation of child labor laws, representing an 88% increase since 2019. And of the 955 child labor cases that were investigated and closed by federal regulators in 2023, more than half involved minors employed in violation of hazardous occupation laws.

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