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Worker Shortage Concerns in Meatpacking05/26 06:19

   Meatpacking companies struggling to hire before the pandemic are spending 
millions on fresh incentives. Their hiring capability hinges on unemployment, 
industry changes, employees' feelings about safety, and President Donald 
Trump's aggressive immigration policies.

   SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (AP)  When Martha Kebede's adult sons immigrated from 
Ethiopia and reunited with her in South Dakota this year, they had few work 
opportunities.

   Lacking English skills, the brothers took jobs at Smithfield Foods' Sioux 
Falls pork plant, grueling and increasingly risky work as the coronavirus 
sickened thousands of meatpacking workers nationwide. One day half the workers 
on a slicing line vanished; later the brothers tested positive for the COVID-19 
virus.

   "It was very, very sad," Kebede said. "The boys teared up seeing everyone."

   The brothers  who declined to be identified for fear of workplace 
retaliation  are among roughly 175,000 immigrants in U.S. meatpacking jobs. 
The industry has historically relied on foreign-born workers  from people in 
the country illegally to refugees  for some of America's most dangerous jobs.

   Now that reliance and uncertainty about a virus that's killed at least 20 
workers and temporarily shuttered several plants fuels concerns about possible 
labor shortages to meet demand for beef, pork and chicken.

   Companies struggling to hire before the pandemic are spending millions on 
fresh incentives. Their hiring capability hinges on unemployment, industry 
changes, employees' feelings about safety, and President Donald Trump's 
aggressive and erratic immigration policies.

   Trump has restricted nearly all immigration, but his administration recently 
granted seasonal workers 60-day extensions, affecting a smattering in meat and 
poultry.

   Roughly 350 foreign workers were certified for meat and poultry gigs in 
2019, according to Daniel Costa at the Economic Policy Institute. Such H-2B 
visa holders, capped at 66,000 annually, are commonly used in landscaping and 
resorts.

   But there's been willingness to expand. A plan to add 35,000 seasonal 
workers  which Trump supports in tight labor markets  was suspended in 
April for "present economic circumstances."

   Immigrants make up nearly 40% of the industry's roughly 470,000 workers, 
with higher concentrations in states like South Dakota, where they are 58% of 
workers, and Nebraska, where they're 66%, according to the nonprofit Migration 
Policy Institute. Estimates on illegal immigrants vary from 14% to the majority 
at some plants.

   The industry argues it offers ample jobs with benefits and opportunities to 
advance for all workers. Paulina Francisco said her 21 years at Smithfield in 
Sioux City, Iowa, helped her buy a home, something she didn't think possible 
when she immigrated from Guatemala. She's now a citizen.

   Still, most jobs are rural, limiting workers' access to lawyers, favorable 
union laws and other jobs. Hourly pay averages as low as $12.50 for 
backbreaking work, often conducted side-by-side. Workers in the country 
illegally fear deportation for speaking up.

   "Vulnerable populations work well for them," Joshua Specht, a University of 
Notre Dame professor, said of the industry.

   Chicken plants extensively recruited immigrants in the 1990s as union 
organizing among majority African American workers increased. One Morton, 
Mississippi, plant advertised in Miami's Cuban stores and newspapers, busing 
workers willing to accept lower wages, a tactic replicated across the South, 
according to University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill anthropologist Angela 
Stuesse.

   Initially, it was immigrants with work authorization, but they were replaced 
by Mexicans and Guatemalans here illegally. Argentinians, Uruguayans and 
Peruvians followed. By the 2000s, the labor pool was self-sustaining with 
word-of-mouth.

   "This is part of the way this industry works, is by having these different 
communities they can lean into to keep costs down and keep the lines running," 
said Stuesse.

   One window into the industry's response to sudden labor shortages is 
immigration raids.

   In 2006, agents swept Swift & Co. plants, netting 1,300 arrests, the largest 
single-worksite raid in U.S. history.

   Full production resumed within months. One Greeley, Colorado, plant offered 
more pay, hiring about 75 workers, mainly U.S. citizens and Somali refugees, 
according to the Center for Immigration Studies, which supports restricting 
immigration.

   Today, meatpacking has the fifth-highest concentration of refugee workers, 
according to the nonprofit Fiscal Policy Institute.

   Sudanese refugee Salaheldin Ahmed, 44, heard about Smithfield's jobs while 
in New Hampshire and moved to South Dakota six years ago. After escaping war, 
little fazes the forklift driver, not even a positive COVID-19 test.

   "They were killing in front of you," Ahmed, who experienced mild symptoms, 
said of atrocities he once witnessed. "The coronavirus is nothing."

   Some data suggests raids may temporarily decrease immigrant hiring.

   Noncitizens comprised 52% of meatpacking in 2006, dropping to 42% by 2008, 
according to Michael Clemens at the Center for Global Development. He cited an 
annual March employment survey.

   But that trend reversed during the Great Recession's high unemployment. By 
2011, noncitizens were roughly 56%.

   After raids last year on Mississippi poultry plants, some citizens were 
hired but many immigrants returned to work, according to activists and local 
leaders.

   "There is a need of workers and they don't have any other possibilities," 
said Rev. Roberto Mena, whose Forest congregation includes poultry workers.

   Koch Foods and Peco Foods, the largest companies targeted, didn't return 
messages. Both have touted use of the federal E-Verify system to confirm worker 
eligibility.

   Some blame the business model. With rapid turnover, it's not uncommon for 
plants to rehire an entire workforce annually, says worker advocate National 
Employment Law Project.

   "This is the industry's own short-sightedness," said Debbie Berkowitz, a 
director. "They want to look for workers they can exploit, rather than workers 
that would feel comfortable raising concerns."

   After the outbreak closed several plants, they got Trump's help; he issued 
an order classifying meat processing as critical.

   The North American Meat Institute estimates most plants are at 70% 
production. Many added plexiglass barriers and other protections.

   Little, the institute spokeswoman, noted that many meatpacking companies 
continued to pay employees even when plants shuttered and suggested more people 
might be drawn to meatpacking amid high unemployment.

   "There's so many unknowns," she said. "I don't know what's in store for us."

   The pandemic has accelerated some workers' decisions.

   Guadalupe Paez, 62, likely won't return to his job cleaning cattle at JBS 
Packerland in Green Bay, Wisconsin, after being hospitalized for COVID-19. 
Weaker, he fears more illness, says his daughter Dora Flores. Paez immigrated 
from Mexico through a 1980s guest worker program and obtained a green card.

   "He only goes out for the doctor appointments," she said. "He's traumatized."

    

 
 
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