(The Gazette) The flame under this ethnic melting pot is flickering.
As production falls at the Agriprocessors meatpacking plant, the immigrants who came to work there are hitting the road.
The plant has not processed beef in about two weeks, and shifts in the chicken and turkey departments have been cut back to eight hours a day.
All but about 25 of the nearly 200 workers from the island nation of Palau had left town as of yesterday, said Joanne Obak, 29, of Koror, Palau.
“It’s because a lot have been laid off in the beef kill and because those who still have jobs can’t make it on eight hours a day,” she said.
Most of the remaining Palauan workers “are not doing well” and will be leaving soon, said Obak, who herself plans to leave town Saturday. “I came for a job, but it’s time to move on,” she said.
Agriprocessors spokesman Chaim Abrahams said yesterday that the company has about 200 employees spread across all departments — down from about 900 before the May 12 immigration raid that started the company’s downward spiral. The company is not hiring except to replace key personnel, he said.
Abrahams said the company is working with the court, attorneys and investors to restructure after filing for protection from creditors under Chapter 11 of the bankruptcy law.
“We’re working hard to put it together, and we’re moving forward,” he said.
Besides its more than $50 million in debt, Agriprocessors’ former CEO, Sholom Rubashkin, was recently charged with conspiring to hire illegal immigrants, and the company was fined nearly $10 million for state labor violations. It also faces more than 9,000 counts of child labor law violations.
“I don’t see any way they can continue to operate much longer,” said Jeff Abbas, manager of KPVL, the local radio station.
Abbas said buses arrived yesterday to take away the last of the Agriprocessors workers hired by Jacobson Staffing and One Force Staffing, firms retained by Agriprocessors to recruit workers.
With the social and economic dislocation that has occurred since the raid, “this town is far worse off now than when Agriprocessors came to town” more than 20 years ago, Abbas said.
Postville Mayor Robert Penrod said he has no special insights into Agriprocessors’ future in the town. Penrod acknowledged that retail sales have declined with the exodus of workers but said that could be attributed in part to the general economic downturn.
“Everybody is hoping that new management can turn the company around in a hurry,” Penrod said.
One of the town’s leading residential rental companies, GAL Investments, has about 100 vacancies among its approximately 150 residential rental units in Postville, according to company bookkeeper Nina Taylor.
The company lost 12 renters since Tuesday, Taylor said yesterday.
“Compared with what it was before the raid, Postville is almost a ghost town,” she said.
Alliant Energy will not cut off power to 330 Postville-area customers behind in their payments until at least next week, company spokesman Ryan Stensland said. Many of the customers are financially troubled employees or former employees of Agriprocessors.
Stensland said Alliant agreed Tuesday to a request by the Iowa Utilities Board to suspend disconnections in Postville for one week. The company will revisit the decision next week, he said.
(Source: The Gazette)