The owner and managers of the nation’s largest kosher meatpacking plant were charged Tuesday with more than 9,000 misdemeanors alleging they hired minors and had children younger than 16 handle dangerous equipment such as circular saws and meat grinders.
Two employees were also charged in federal court. The state and federal charges are the first against operators of the Agriprocessors plant in Postville, where nearly 400 illegal immigrant workers were arrested in May in one of the largest immigration raids in U.S. history.
The complaint filed by the Iowa attorney general’s office said the violations involved 32 illegal-immigrant children under age 18, including seven who were younger than 16. Aside from handling dangerous equipment, the complaint says children were exposed to dangerous chemicals such as chlorine solutions and dry ice.
The attorney general’s office said the violations occurred from Sept. 9, 2007, to May 12, 2008, when the plant was raided by immigration agents.
Charged are the company itself, Agriprocessors Inc.; plant owner Abraham Aaron Rubashkin; former plant manager Sholom Rubashkin; human resources manager Elizabeth Billmeyer; and Laura Althouse and Karina Freund, managers in the company’s human resources division.
Each defendant faces 9,311 counts — one for each day a particular violation is alleged for each worker.
“All of the named individual defendants possessed shared knowledge that Agriprocessors employed undocumented aliens. It was likewise shared knowledge among the defendants that many of those workers were minors,” the affidavit said.
Althouse and Freund also face federal immigration charges related to the raid and appeared in Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Cedar Rapids. Freund was charged with aiding and abetting harboring undocumented aliens, while Althouse was charged with conspiracy to harbor undocumented aliens and other counts.
The state charges are simple misdemeanors, each carrying a penalty of up to 30 days in jail and a $625 fine.
At a news conference Tuesday, Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller said the case is the largest of its type he’d handled in his 26 years as attorney general.
Chaim Abrams, a manager at the plant, said in a statement that Agriprocessors “vehemently denies” the allegations and “acted in good faith on the child labor issue.”
“All of the minors at issue lied about their age in order to gain employment at the company,” he said. They presented documents stating that they were over 18, he said, and “they knew that, if they told the truth about their age, they would not be hired.”
But the attorney general’s office said the company encouraged job applicants to submit forged identification documents that contained false information about their resident status, age and identity.
Sonia Parras Konrad, an attorney representing more than 20 of the children, said her clients were as young as 14 when they started working at the plant.
“We don’t need to see any papers to see that someone is a child,” she said. “This was not one mistake, two mistakes, three mistakes, but many, many mistakes.”
Among the child labor violations were employing a child under age 18 in a meatpacking plant and employing a child under age 16 who operated power machinery or worked longer hours than permitted for someone that young.
In addition, the attorney general’s office said, the company’s records also show that employees were not paid for all overtime worked.
Postville resident Dave Hartley, 50, said it was troubling that the allegations would put the town back in the spotlight.
“You want things to get back to normal,” Hartley said. “I wouldn’t say it’s turmoil in town, per se, but people are just wondering what’s going to happen.”