Agriprocessors immigrant workers finding haven away from Postville
By Orlan Love, The Gazette
LONG PRAIRIE, MINN. - Up here at the 46th parallel, where radio stations advertise products to keep icicles off cows' teats, tropical islanders weigh on one hand their former lives snorkeling in paradise and, on the other, their new lives trimming beef on the frozen prairie.
The opportunity to earn big money — $12 an hour versus the $2.50 average wage in her native Palau — tips the scale heavily toward Long Prairie, Rolinda Williams said. Williams, 30, one of about 40 former employees of the troubled Agriprocessors Inc. kosher meatpacker in Postville who have relocated to work at the beef processing plant in this central Minnesota town.
In September, Williams and about 170 other Palauans embarked on an 8,000-mile odyssey that included several disillusioning weeks at Agriprocessors. When legal and financial problems nearly halted production there in late October, hundreds of displaced workers scattered and scrambled for jobs, with the largest concentration settling in Long Prairie.
"We love it here," said Maverick Masahiro, 19, who shares a rented house with Williams and two other Palauans, Perry Chogolmad, 21, and Yanangawa Seichi, 42. They and 18 other citizens of the Pacific island nation came here in November, along with about 20 other ex-Agriprocessors workers of various ethnic backgrounds.
On his first day at work at Long Prairie, Masahiro said, one of his Mexican co-workers asked if he would like his knives sharpened. "I said, 'No. I want you to teach me how to sharpen my knives,'" Masahiro said.
That work ethic, coupled with the typically warm and open demeanor of most Palauans here, has endeared them to the people they've met, both in Iowa and Minnesota. Those qualities, combined with their fluency in English and their unambiguous legal right to work in the United States, have also made them attractive to employers seeking diligent and reliable workers.
Under Palau's "Compact of Free Association" with the United States, Palauans can travel here without a visa and work in the country indefinitely without having to obtain a green card.
(Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
Rolinda Williams, 30, smiles as she talks about her experiences moving from Palau to Postville to Long Prairie, Minn., during an interview Sunday, Jan. 11, 2009, at the home she shares with three other Palauans in Long Prairie, Minn. The Palauans formerly worked at the Agriprocessors Inc. kosher meat packing plant in Postville.
When it became apparent in October that Agriprocessors was grinding to a halt, Sergio Torres, the human resources manager at Long Prairie Packing Co., traveled to Decorah to interview displaced Agriprocessors workers for jobs at the Minnesota plant.
Williams, a leader among the Palauan immigrants, provided insights useful to the plant managers in their hiring decisions.
The Palauans credit Gary DeVilbiss, a Postville insurance agent, with helping to arrange interviews with Torres and transportation to Long Prairie. They also credit Jeff Abbas, manager of Postville radio station KPVL, with organizing community assistance in their time of greatest need.
"Postville was a good town, but I would never go back," said Williams, who trims fat from beef at a plant that processes 1,000 cattle a day, six days a week.
She said the Long Prairie plant pays workers $11.65 per hour to start, which compares with the $9 wage she earned at Agriprocessors and the $2.50 average wage in her homeland.
Williams' three roommates describe her as like an older, worldly wise sister whose advice keeps them oriented toward a common goal of working hard and saving money.
"We are trying our best to get money," said Masahiro, 19, who worked two weeks as a turkey hanger at Agriprocessors before the company's mounting financial and legal problems cost him his job.
Masahiro has gained enough proficiency after two months cutting beef from bones at the Long Prairie plant to earn a pay increase from $11.65 to $13.15 per hour. "I'm really proud and happy with the way things have worked out," he said.
Masahiro said he misses his home, his mother, spear fishing and traditional Palauan foods, but said he does not really mind the absence of winter recreational opportunities in a land whose average low temperature in January is slightly below zero.
"Work and save money, that's what I do," he said.
(Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
A cut up betel nut sits on the kitchen counter at the home of a group of meatpacking plant workers from the Pacific island of Palau Sunday, Jan. 11, 2009, in Long Prairie, Minn. A portion of the nut is traditionally combined with lime and tobacco then wrapped in a betel leaf and chewed in many Pacific and Asian cultures. The group are former workers from Agriprocessors Inc. kosher meatpacking plant in Postville.
Masahiro said he's made a lot of friends at the plant, especially among the Mexican immigrants, whom he described as "really good and fast" workers.
"When I go to the restroom, my friends do their job and mine so I am not behind when I get back," he said.
Cold weather, which bottomed out in Long Prairie on Jan. 16 at 33 degrees below zero, has been the Palauans' hardest adjustment, they said.
"Ah, the cold, the wind! We're from the tropics. I looked forward to seeing snow, but the snow is not really that fun," Chogolmad said.
The Palauans also are adjusting to life in a faster lane.
"Back home, life was simple. No one has money. No one pays attention to time. Here time and money are everything," Chogolmad said.
Both Chogolmad and Seichi said they're finally over the trauma of attempts to evict them from their Postville residences.
They said their recruiter, Palauan Imelda Nakamura, told them they would get three months' free rent and round-trip airfare as incentives to migrate to work at Agriprocessors.
They got the round-trip tickets but not the free rent, they said.
The evictions and threats of eviction were the worst parts of the Palauans' generally unhappy Postville experience, said Seichi, wearing a purple ball cap with the logo of his new favorite sports team, the Minnesota Vikings.
"Being told to leave, I used to think about that all the time," he said.
Like many Pacific islanders and east Asians, Williams and Seichi partake of the betel nut, also known as the areca nut, which grows profusely on palm trees in the region.
"It energizes you," said Seichi, who struggled through his first days in Long Prairie before securing a supply through an Asian food store in St. Cloud.
"It will give you a buzz," said Williams, comparing the legal stimulant's kick to that of caffeine or nicotine.
During breaks at the plant, "we chew really fast — forget about eating or drinking," Williams said, demonstrating her preferred method of consumption -- quartering the nut and topping it with powdered lime and tobacco from a Marlboro cigarette.
Another community of former Agriprocessors workers — about eight Guatemalans — has coalesced in Waterloo, where at least five have found jobs at the Tyson Foods meatpacking plant, said the Rev. Dennis Coon. His Kimball Avenue United Methodist Church has been helping the displaced workers get settled.
Coon said some of the Guatemalans have served prison terms after being arrested in the now-famous May 12 Agriprocessors immigration raid and being convicted of using false identification to obtain jobs. Some also will serve as material witnesses in upcoming trials, he said.
More than 20 former Agriprocessors workers — mostly Palauans — found jobs with JBS-USA at the former Swift packing plant in Marshalltown.
"They're doing fine. It's been a win-win for them and us," said Tony Harris, human resources manager at the plant whose 2,200 workers process about 20,000 hogs a day.
Like Torres at the Long Prairie plant, Harris said his company waited until Agriprocessors was completely on the ropes before recruiting workers from Postville.
"We didn't feel comfortable taking out employees if they were going to reopen," Harris said.
Both the plant and the community stepped up to welcome the transplanted workers, he said.
"They are a warm and generous people who really wanted to do what they came here to do," said Jeff Harris, a deacon at Marshalltown's St. Mary Catholic Church, which has been instrumental in helping the newcomers get settled.
They've overcome cultural differences, homesickness, inhospitable weather and lack of money while taking on difficult and demanding jobs, the deacon said.