16-year-old worker dies at Mar-Jac Poultry factory in Mississippi; federal investigation ongoing

A worker at Mar-Jac Poultry died from on-the-job injuries Tuesday in Hattiesburg, Miss., pictured here Wednesday, Dec. 16, 2020.
A worker at Mar-Jac Poultry died from on-the-job injuries Tuesday in Hattiesburg, Miss., pictured here Wednesday, Dec. 16, 2020.

Federal agencies are investigating how a 16-year-old boy was able to work at a Mississippi chicken processing plant where he was killed last week when he became entangled in machinery that he was cleaning.

The teen was part of the sanitation crew at the Mar-Jac Poultry factory in Hattiesburg, a city in the southern portion of the state near the coast, the company said in a news release. Hattiesburg police were called around 8 p.m. Friday to the plant to begin investigating the boy's death, police reviously said.

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Mar-Jac denies knowing the teen was a minor

In a news release, Mar-Jac denied knowing that the victim was a minor until after the tragedy occurred. Mar-Jac contracts with staffing companies to fill positions at its facilities, an agreement that Mar-Jac said requires those third parties to verify job applicants are legally qualified to work before they're hired.

In the company's release, provided Thursday to USA TODAY, Mar-Jac said "this individual's age and identity were misrepresented on the paperwork." The name of the staffing company was not identified.

"Although the investigation is still ongoing, it appears now that this worker is less than 18 years of age and should not have been hired," the company said. "Mar-Jac MS would never knowingly put any employee, and certainly not a minor, in harm's way."

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Forrest County Deputy Coroner Lisa Klem told the Hattiesburg American, part of the USA TODAY Network, that the teen was a Hattiesburg resident, but declined to release his name because he was a minor. A cause of death has not been released pending an autopsy.

Multiple news reports identified the boy as Duvan Tomas Pérez, who was a student at N.R. Burger Middle School in Hattiesburg, according to an obituary posted Tuesday.

Boy's death marks third at the plant since 2020

This is not the first fatal accident at the facility, the Hattiesburg American reported. The teen's death marks the third time since 2020 that a death has occurred at the plant.

In 2020, a 33-year-old was killed after he and another person were "horse-playing with machinery" in the battery-charging room of the facility, Hattiesburg police said at the time. In June 2021, a 48-year-old died after he was injured in an incident involving heavy machinery.

Following the death of Pérez, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the Labor Department’s Wage and Hour Division have both launched investigations at the facility, a U.S. Department of Labor spokesperson told USA TODAY.

Federal law prohibits minors from working at meat and poultry plants due to the safety hazards involved. The Fair Labor Standards Act specifically lists sanitation of meat and poultry plant equipment as a hazardous activity that restricts the employment of underage workers.

Child labor violations on the rise as many state lawmakers seek to roll back protections

Perez's death comes at a time when child labor violations appear to be on the rise, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. The agency noted a 69% increase in children being employed illegally by companies, despite the federal law banning the practice since 1938. In fiscal year 2022, the department found 835 companies it investigated had employed more than 3,800 children in violation of labor laws.

The maximum fine allowed by law for a child labor violation is $15,138, according to the labor department.

Mar-Jac said in its statement that it is cooperating with the investigations.

"We are devastated at the loss of life, and deeply regret that an underage individual was hired without our knowledge," the company said. "The company is undertaking a thorough audit with the staffing companies to ensure that this kind of error never happens again."

In the past two years at least 11 states with Republican-dominated legislatures have been pushing to make it easier for companies to put children to work. In an effort to offset labor shortages, states like Ohio and Iowa have sought to loosen child labor laws to allow minors to work later and in different jobs that have historically been off-limits, such as those at construction sites.

'We come seeking a dream that doesn’t exist'

Such legislation has long drawn the pushback of labor and immigration activists alike, and news of Pérez's death only further ignited their opposition.

“How many more children must die?” Liz Shuler, president of the AFL-CIO, the largest federation of unions in the country, tweeted Wednesday. “We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again: Any lawmaker who wants to undermine child labor laws, in 2023, is a disgrace.”

In a statement, the Immigrant Alliance for Justice and Equity, a Jackson-based nonprofit organization, said “our hearts are heavy with grief for the loss of this young Latino worker.”

“Our Latinx and Indigenous families come here to the United States looking for a better life for ourselves and our children," according to the statement, attributed to Executive Director Lorena Quiroz.

"We come seeking a dream that doesn’t exist.”

Eric Lagatta covers breaking and trending news for USA TODAY. Reach him at elagatta@gannett.com and follow him on Twitter @EricLagatta.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Teen death at Mississippi Mar-Jac Poultry plant prompts federal probe