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Agriprocessors Imports Homeless Workers and Postville Pays a Price
People in the northeastern Iowa town of Postville have spent the past two decades learning how to thrive despite a wealth of differences. Between the town’s longtime residents, the influx of Hasidic Jews who arrived in the late 1980s to operate a kosher slaughterhouse, and the recently arrived Central American and Mexican migrants, the town of 2,500 had the ethnic mix of a much larger city. Just a few weeks ago many would have said that the town had worked through the worst of its growing pains to settle into a primarily quiet and productive routine.
Before the nation’s largest single-site immigration raid came crashing down upon Agriprocessors, a kosher meatpacking plant, and swept away nearly half of the company’s workforce and 18 percent of the population, life was different in Postville. Now the town’s elected officials and residents scramble as they try to balance the needs of the town with those of their largest employer.
“I know there are concerns around town about the rebuilding effort following the May 12 raid of Agriprocessors,” said Getzel Rubashkin, a member of the Brooklyn-based family that owns Agriprocessors. While adding that he was not a spokesman for the company, he said, “I want to say that, as residents of this town, we know this is not a company that is run by remote control from somewhere else. Our community lives here with the company and we have to deal with any negative impact of people brought into town to work at the plant.”
Rubashkin’s words before the Postville City Council on behalf of his family and the Hasidic Jewish community were prompted by a recent crime wave that some residents blame on newly hired plant employees. At least a portion of the new workers, desperately needed for the plant to return to normal production levels, were recruited from homeless shelters in Texas.
“This past Saturday, our officers responded to three calls for disorderly conduct,” said Postville Police Chief Michael Halse. “While that may not seem like a lot, you need to understand that on any given Saturday we might have one such call.”
Since 1992, Postville has had an average of 12.5 incidents of disorderly conduct and public intoxication per year with a high of 44 such cases in 1998. At that time, according to Halse, Agriprocessors had employed many young and single Hispanic men who had a difficult time adjusting.
“I couldn’t tell you if we are going to break that record,” Halse said. “But if things continue as they are right now, we’ll have a good chance of doing it.”
Agencies Screening Workers
Ryan Regenold, a spokesman for Des Moines-based Jacobson Companies, said his staffing company was relying on two Texas agencies, one in Amarillo and another in McAllen, for recruiting in that state.
“I represent Jacobson Staffing, and we were brought here on June 2 to basically bring in an entire new community — at least that’s how it seems,” Regenold said. “There are two outside-sourced agencies that Agri is using that were bringing the people from Texas. As I’m sure most have already heard, they are coming in from Amarillo and McAllen. To shore up that, we are screening those people a little bit better, we will be starting to have them drug-screened and background-checked prior to their coming to Postville. The wave of people that you might have seen in the past, those causing the police chief to do a little bit of extra paperwork on his weekends, hopefully will begin to stop.”
Regenold added that overall he has been pleased with the relationship between Agriprocessors and Jacobson, and that only about 10 percent of the people sent to work at the plant have been lost to turnover. He urged those in attendance at the council meeting to try and overlook the “bad apples” and promised to make himself available to officials who had questions about the staff restoration at Agriprocessors.
“We do have and do provide — teamed up with Agriprocessors — we do ship these people out,” he said. “We offer them an opportunity. We offer them a bus ticket to go back where they came from. We cannot force them to leave the community by any means, but we do give them the option to get out of the community. We give them transportation back to Waterloo and a bus ticket back to wherever they came from.”
All new hires coming through Jacobson are being checked through the E-Verify system, an online system operated jointly by the Department of Homeland Security and the Social Security Administration (SSA), to ensure their legal status, Regenold said.
“Within the first three days that I was here, we turned away 110 people that tried to get in the doors,” he said. “I think that effort right there is a lot of paperwork and should be applauded. We are trying to clean up the community the best we can.”
Upon completion of Regenold’s informal presentation to the council, Mayor Robert Penrod issued his own warning.
“I’m going to hold you to [what you've said]. And, if you can’t get it turned around, we are going to go round and round,” said Penrod. “That’s the bottom line because this is not going to happen again. There’s no excuse for what we’ve been putting up with and, as far as I’m concerned, that’s poor management on your part.”
One of the firms being utilized by Jacobson is Bravo Labor Agency in McAllen, Texas. Although the company’s Web site has been taken off-line, a May 30 cached version of the page indicates that the firm began in 1987. One of the specialties highlighted by the firm is its ability to “lower overhead, with inexpensive labor from South Texas and Mexico.” The site also indicates that “all workers” will be drug-tested and interviewed, “if needed.”
Texas Recruit: ‘A Bunch of Lies’
Despite Regenold’s statements before the council that workers bussed into Postville were being offered bus tickets back to their original location, at least one worker said she was not provided such an option.
In an interview on KPVL radio, Diana Morris said that she was one of about 15 people who were recruited from an Amarillo shelter. Morris said she was promised $10 per hour at Agriprocessors, 30 days of free housing and a $100 starting bonus. According to Morris, her employment at Agriprocessors came to an end on her third day when, at a doctor’s urging, she phoned in sick. She claims that the housing was a four-bedroom facility without electricity or hot water that she was expected to share with 10 male roommates.
Morris told Iowa Independent on Monday afternoon that she had received her paycheck for the work she provided to Agriprocessors and that she was working with other organizations within the community to raise money for a bus ticket back to Texas.
“I was told that I have a place to stay for one more night — that I’ll be evicted tomorrow,” she said. “I really hope that everything comes together and that I’ll be able to get on a bus tomorrow and go back to Texas. This was a mistake. I believed a bunch of lies.”
On Tuesday afternoon, Morris had collected enough money through donations for her return trip home.
The “bad apples” aren’t the first to come to Postville for work at Agriprocessors only to seek exit shortly after their arrival. Labor Ready, a multinational staffing firm with a branch in Waterloo, cited health and safety concerns as the reason it pulled roughly 150 workers out of the Agriprocessors plant 10 days after they started employment there. Another group of workers from the company’s Nebraska plant opted to return west, claiming the working conditions in Postville to be far inferior to their original location.
Paul Rael, director of the Hispanic Ministry at St. Bridget’s Catholic Church, said the church’s resources for outreach have been severely taxed by all the newcomers.
“[St. Bridget's] operates a food pantry here in town and we’ve been wiped out on every occasion that we’ve been open,” Rael said. “We have been serving well over 100 people each time [who] we feel we have zero responsibility for. … I would plead that these people be given a better advance so that they can better take care of their [own] needs.”
Regenold said that Jacobson does not provide any payroll advances to employees.
“You come here with an opportunity to work — that’s your opportunity to make money,” he said. “I’m not going to make any promises or guarantees of money on advancements. Any arrangement that has ever been made with money has been put together directly with Agriprocessors.”
Rubashkin, who was in the room and listened to Regenold’s explanation of Jacobson policy, did not offer further comment in relation to employee pay advances.
Agriprocessors, owned and operated by the Aaron Rusbashkin family, produces about 60 percent of the kosher meat and 40 percent of the kosher poultry in the U.S. market. The company’s brands include Aaron’s Best, Aaron’s Choice, European Glatt, Nevel, Shor Harbor, Rubashkin’s, Supreme Kosher, David’s and Iowa’s Best. Two-thirds of their products are nonkosher, and are sold through retailers including Wal-Mart and Trader Joe’s.
An investigation remains under way, according to spokesmen for the U.S. Attorney’s Office of the Northern District of Iowa and for the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).