GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Union High School students in Grand Rapids were among the migrant children reportedly hired as employees in dangerous conditions at a food manufacturer in Kent County.
A New York Times investigation found Hearthside Food Solutions, a food processor with four facilities in Kent County, appears to have violated child labor laws by employing young workers in unsafe conditions. Some migrant workers said their backs would hurt from moving cereal all night on conveyor belts. Their lungs would sting from spicy food dust.
“I think for our entire team, we were dismayed, alarmed and disappointed about the allegations being made in that piece,” Grand Rapids Public Schools spokesman Leon Hendrix said. “The claims that somebody might be taking advantage of our young people is a major concern for us.”
Hearthside, which makes food for companies like General Mills and Frito-Lay, reportedly hired the children through the Grand Rapids employment agency Forge Industrial Staffing.
Forge denied the accusations in a statement to News 8, saying all workers provided identity documents confirming they were 18 and older, and that it found no information to support the claims made in the article.
But according to the Times, three people who used to work at Forge said Hearthside supervisors knew they were getting younger-looking workers whose identities were flagged as false but nothing was done about it.
Meanwhile, Hearthside told News 8 it’s appalled by the article and has hired a law firm to conduct a review of employment practices and plant safety protocols. That review is expected to take 60 days.
“Our hearts break for the young people whose stories are documented in the article,” the company said. “These claims don’t match our values or how we do business.”
FEDERAL TASK FORCE TO INVESTIGATE
U.S. Rep. Hillary Scholten, D-Grand Rapids, told News 8 on Monday afternoon the companies may have broken several laws and that the state and federal department of labor are investigating.
“The openness and the flagrancy with which they violated the law really speaks to the extent to which the system is broken and how this type of violation was allowed to exist,” Scholten said. “You have bad actors who take advantage of vulnerable children. We need to make sure we prosecute these violations to the fullest extent of the law.”
Scholten said the White House on Monday agreed to create an interagency task force between the Department of Labor and the Department of Health and Human Services to help prevent child exploitation from happening again.
“I’m shocked,” Scholten said. “I’m appalled. But most importantly I’m stirred to action.”
GRPS: ‘KIDS FIRST’
According to the Times report, Union High teachers estimated that 200 of the school’s immigrants worked full time. GRPS could not confirm that number and is unaware how many Union students were at Hearthside.
“The specific numbers around this are difficult,” Hendrix said. “I think it spells out in the article that not all of these folks are necessarily reporting that they’re working to us.”
A ninth grade teacher at Union High School said one of his students working nights at a commercial laundry was hospitalized twice and ended up dropping out of school.
“It’s just absolutely wrong,” Union High School Principal Aaron Roussey told News 8 Monday. “Education should be first. Their livelihood, their safety should be first.
“Every decision we make within the building, it’s kids first,” the principal added. “Make the decision based on what’s best for the kid. I’m hoping employers are doing the same.”
Hendrix said he could not comment on specific allegations, citing student protection and privacy.
“But I can tell you we have already been in contact with officials at the state and local level to make sure this is being addressed,” Hendrix said. “The most important thing for us is to make sure that if the allegations in this article are true, that they are being addressed. If someone has something wrong to harm young people in GRPS and elsewhere, that they’re held to account.”
Both Hendrix and Roussey said they are focused on building relationships with students so they know when something’s wrong.
“When something’s not right, we want our scholars to come to us,” Hendrix said. “Whether it’s about themselves, whether it’s about a classmate, we encourage them each day to be willing to talk with our teachers and our staff about that. We are constantly working to build those relationships with our young people so even the things they’re not saying to us, we’re able to see those signs that something’s not right and take action.”
“You have to have that relationship for people to open up and tell you the situations they’re sometimes in,” Roussey added. “And when that happens, then it’s our turn to act and figure out how to support whether that’s in the building or whether that’s community resources.”