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This L.A. firm hired kids to debone poultry with sharp knives, drive fork lifts, Labor Department says

Chickens sit in a coop
A Southern California poultry processor must pay nearly $3.8 million in fines and back wages after illegally employing children as young as 14 to debone meat with sharp knives and move pallets with power-driven lifts, among other violations, the Labor Department said. (Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

A Southern California poultry processor illegally employed children as young as 14 to debone meat with sharp knives and move pallets with power-driven lifts, the Labor Department said.

The poultry processor, which supplies grocery stores including Ralphs and Aldi, must pay nearly $3.8 million in fines and back wages after an investigation found the company employing children as young as 14 in dangerous jobs, retaliating against workers who cooperated with investigators and refusing to pay overtime wages, the agency said.

The Labor Department alleged that Exclusive Poultry Inc. and other companies owned by Tony Elvis Bran employed children who used sharp knives to debone poultry, operated power-driven lifts to move pallets and worked more hours than are allowed under child labor laws.

The company also allegedly cut the wages of workers who cooperated with investigators and did not pay workers proper overtime, according to the agency.

“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.

When reached by phone, Bran said he didn't know if he was allowed to speak about the case and had to ask his lawyer if he could comment.

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The Labor Department said its investigation included two poultry plants in City of Industry and La Puente controlled by Bran, and that he set up "front companies" to employ workers at these plants. Those company names are Meza Poultry, Valtierra Poultry, Sullon Poultry Inc. and Nollus’s Poultry.

Bran, the companies and the listed owners of the front companies are now subject to a consent judgment that prevents them from violating labor laws, including paying workers less than minimum wage, paying inadequate overtime costs and allowing children under 16 to work too many hours.

The companies are also prevented from shipping any poultry that was produced in violation of labor laws governing minimum wage, overtime pay and child labor, or from any location where Labor Department investigators saw child labor occurring.

Bran and Exclusive Poultry will also be monitored for three years to ensure compliance, and workers who were fired from the plants after the investigators’ plant visit will get preferential hiring for any open positions, the Labor Department said.

The company supplied Ralphs, Aldi, Grocery Outlet and Sysco, among other companies, according to the Labor Department.

Grocery Outlet said it has never used Exclusive Poultry as a supplier, nor has it used any of the other companies associated with the Labor Department's investigation.

Sysco said that the findings of the Labor Department's investigation of Exclusive Poultry represent "serious violations of legal and regulatory requirements and are inconsistent with the ethical standards outlined in Sysco’s Supplier Code of Conduct." The food distributor said it was "evaluating the situation" and would take "appropriate remedial actions" to ensure its suppliers uphold company standards on labor and food safety.

Aldi said that it has never used Exclusive Poultry as a supplier, and that the company has "stringent processes" for identifying suppliers to ensure compliance with legal and regulatory requirements.

Ralphs owner Kroger didn’t respond to a request for comment.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.