The Exclusive Poultry in La Puente, Calif.
The Labor Department says that a Los Angeles-based poultry processor hired children as young as 14 to debone chicken with sharp knives and hid minors in closets when investigators showed up to ask questions, according to court documents and a new consent decree with the company announced Monday.
The poultry processor, known as The Exclusive Poultry, processes chicken at two L.A. locations and sells its chicken to retailers like the grocery chain Aldi and Ralphs Grocery Co., a subsidiary of the Kroger Co. As part of the consent decree, The Exclusive Poultry agreed to pay more than $3.8 million, including back wages, damages and $200,000 in civil penalties for hiring children, according to the Labor Department.
“The 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. She added that the division “will continue to work at every level of the industry to prevent employers or retailers from exploiting workers, including children, for profit.”
The company’s attorney, Anthony McClaren, told NBC News: “These were just allegations and the case was in its infancy. We were just beginning to do our own discovery to understand whether or not these allegations were true.”
McClaren said that his client did not know whether children had been hired but that the company concluded that a resolution with the federal agency “was in the best interest of moving forward.”
McClaren said that following the settlement, the company is effectively out of business.
The Labor Department’s investigation began as an inquiry into allegedly unpaid wages in August 2022, when an adult worker complained to the federal agency, according to court documents.
Labor investigators repeatedly went to the company’s poultry processing locations and said in affidavits they saw young workers they estimated were 14 to 17 years of age, but the workers refused to talk and would run from them.
The Labor Department told NBC News it subsequently confirmed that some of the workers were as young as 14.
Investigators alleged in court affidavits that employees told investigators that minors deboned chicken, worked overtime six days a week and did not attend school, and that some of those children had been injured on the job.
The investigators also alleged that after the Labor Department launched its investigation, Bran, the company owner, yelled at the workers in Spanish, “threatening that he believed they had ‘opened their traps’ to the Department of Labor and that because of this, he would be reducing their pay.”
Workers allegedly told investigators that minors who worked at the company were hidden in closets and bathrooms when the investigators arrived so they would not be found.
As part of the consent decree, the company has agreed to three years of monitoring by a third party to ensure no minors are hired and wages are paid back.
The investigation and subsequent consent decree with the company are part of an industry-wide crackdown on wage theft and child labor by the Biden administration. In fall 2022, the department found more than 100 children, some as young as 13, cleaning slaughterhouses for a Midwestern firm.