New, Willing Workforce

Vanessa Bauza, Chicago Tribune, February 11, 2008

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That’s a big problem for meatpacking plants, which scramble to staff their production lines, and for years have relied on immigrants to fill jobs local workers won’t take. As immigration agents have cracked down on businesses across the nation, arresting thousands of illegal workers and sending others into hiding, two Downstate pork processing plants have turned to Puerto Rico, which offers a willing workforce without the legal hurdles of a foreign country.

Over the last seven months, recruiters from Meadowbrook Farms in Rantoul and the Cargill plant in Beardstown have made several trips to Puerto Rico, hiring more than 130 workers, though roughly a third have returned to the island.

Those who remain, like Alcover, say the meatpacking jobs offer higher salaries and more stability than they had in Puerto Rico. Unemployment in Alcover’s hometown of Jayuya (pronounced ha-you-ya), nestled in the island’s central mountains, hovers around 13 percent. She was making $6.25 an hour doing construction work when she heard about Meadowbrook’s $9-an-hour starting salaries. A day after getting the job, Alcover, 38, packed her bags, kissed her teenage sons goodbye and boarded a flight toChicago.

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Many meatpacking plants are in constant hiring mode, scouring for workers in inner cities, reaching out to agencies that resettle refugees and recruiting in rural communities where factories have shut down.

The Cargill pork processing plant had never gone outside the continental United States before, but Puerto Ricans’ U.S. citizenship, coupled with the island’s soaring unemployment, make it an attractive spot to scout for workers, said spokesman Mark Klein. So far, the Beardstown plant has added about 50 Puerto Rican workers and a dozen more were expected to start last week, Klein said.

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Meadowbrook Farms employs about 550 workers to slaughter and process 3,300 hogs a day. It produces just 1 percent of the nation’s pork, but like its larger competitors, turnover is high: Meadowbrook loses 12 percent of its workforce every month. The plant recently added a second shift, making hiring needs more urgent. Puerto Ricans have helped fill the gap.

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Depressed region

Most have come from the heart of the coffee-growing region known as the high country, where pastel-colored concrete homes cling to the sides of lush mountains. News of the jobs spread quickly among longtime friends and relatives who later moved together to Rantoul, a mostly blue-collar town of 13,000 people surrounded by farm fields.

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Meadowbrook advances workers the price of airfare to Chicago and two months’ rent in temporary apartments until they find their own housing. The most recent arrivals sleep on air mattresses, watch a television they pulled from a garbage bin and bundle up in parkas fromWal-Mart. In the mornings they commute a few miles to the plant.

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But not all has gone smoothly with the new recruits. Some returned to the island because they missed their families, others flew back fearing reprisals after a knife fight at a party injured a fellow worker. Still others were fired for “unacceptable behavior,” including lateness and absenteeism, said Jim Altemus, Meadowbrook Farms’ vice president of marketing.

In December, when plant managers gave the fired employees 24 hours to leave the temporary apartments, which were leased to Meadowbrook, some workers complained they were being treated like illegal immigrants.

Since then tensions have subsided and Altemus said new Puerto Rican workers have come for employment at the plant.

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Long-standing history

U.S. companies have been dipping into Puerto Rico’s labor pool since the late 1940s, when an industrialization program shifted the island’s agrarian economy to manufacturing and tourism. Police departments, school districts and hospitals travel to the island for skilled bilingual workers. But several large meatpacking companies said they don’t see the need to go that far afield.

Smithfield Packing Co., which employs 14,000 workers in factories and warehouses from Maryland to Florida, looked into recruiting in Puerto Rico years ago but never followed up, said spokesman Dennis Pittman. Instead, the company runs ads in local newspapers and works with state employment agencies. It also wants to add more automation to reduce the demand for workers, Pittman said.

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