More than a thousand workers at the Windom, Minn. hog slaughtering plant, Hylife, face their last day of work Friday. That's at least partially a result of the hog industry taking a downturn this year. In early April, Manitoba-based HyLife announced plans to close the Windom plant if they could not find a buyer and soon after that, they filed for bankruptcy.
Closing the plant will have big reverberations in the area. Workers who came to this country for those jobs will have to find a new one quickly, or leave the U.S.
MPR News Host Cathy Wurzer talked with two people who are helping workers affected by the Windom Hylife plant layoffs.
Gabby Nelson has facilitated the aid response to the Hylife layoffs through the Windom Cultural Integration Collaborative, a group formed to welcome the hundreds of Hylife workers on temporary H2B visas that came to Windom.
Maria Guerrero is a community health worker with Wellshare International in Mankato. She has worked to find solutions for the hundreds of laid-off Hylife workers who live in hotels in the Mankato area. The majority of those workers arrived from the Mexico border.
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Closing the plant will have a big reverberation in the area. For workers who came to this country for those jobs, they'll have to find a new one quickly or leave the US. Gabby Nelson has been facilitating the aid response to the Highlife layoffs through the Windom Cultural Integration Collaborative. That's a group that was formed to welcome the hundreds of high life workers on temporary H-2B visas that came to Windom.
Maria Guerrero is a community health worker with Wellshare International based in Mankato. She's been working to find solutions for the hundreds of laid off Highlife workers who live in hotels in the Mankato area. The majority of those workers arrived from the Mexico border. Maria and Gabby, thank you for being with us.
CATHY WURZER: Thanks. Maria, I want to start with you. I know you've been working closely with many of these Highlife workers, especially, as I understand it, 160-- I should say 176 who are living in a Mankato hotel. Will they all have to leave that hotel by Sunday?
MARIA GUERRERO: No, actually, it has to be on Saturday.
CATHY WURZER: Oh, that's even worse.
MARIA GUERRERO: Yes.
CATHY WURZER: Oh my goodness. What options do folks have at this point?
MARIA GUERRERO: At this point, it's like many of them apply with another companies, like Tyson. I know there's other ones from Michigan that they offer them the H-2B visas. So tomorrow with Highlife is their last day, and then they start the process with, for example, Tyson.
And there's a waiting period of 60 days. And it all depends on the companies that they want to, while they submit the paperwork through immigration and start working or they have to wait until the paperwork goes through.
CATHY WURZER: Very confusing. Where will these folks live in the meantime?
MARIA GUERRERO: They have to start looking for, just like everybody else, looking to rent-- rent homes or who can take them in. And yeah.
CATHY WURZER: Wow. I know that Highlife brought many of these workers from Mexico to Windom on three year contracts. And those people made financial decisions based on this guaranteed work. And these plans have fallen through. How have they been feeling in the past few weeks?
MARIA GUERRERO: Oh, it has been devastating for them. They have been in fear. And, like, they came it's kind of like your dream. You're going to work for three years. You buy cars, houses, land back home, and you're with all this stuff.
And then in less than a year, being a year here, and then they said, oh, we don't have more work for you. And so it's like when they got this letter or this news back in April, it's like they lost, they retire. They lost their sleep, their appetite. Yeah, it was very sad.
CATHY WURZER: And stressful, I'm sure. Gabby, I'm going to bring you into the conversation right now. I know that you've been trying to help these folks-- more than 1,000 workers that will be out of a job, I understand. We heard a little bit about housing. It might be a big concern here. What other kinds of help do these individuals need?
GABBY NELSON: Sure. So, first and foremost, we started organizing legal clinics with people like Immigrant Connect, Kivu Immigration Law Center to let people know their options. When this WARN notice came out, a lot of people didn't have enough information to make these hard decisions. So the Windom CIC and these different community partners, Swift helped fund the work, put together this legal clinic to get people the correct information.
And that misinformation kept coming. People are looking for solutions, they're feeling desperate. And so the Windom CIC had Tina Smith's office involved, Amy Klobuchar's office involved, clues from the city's Kivu Law do a panel and let people know their different immigration options, the asylum options.
We hosted a resource fair, things like housing, information on how to sell your cars, and a bunch of community partners from the region showed up and shared information with them to help them get connected to services that they need. Because, unfortunately, for these H-2B visa holders, there's a lot of gaps on services that they can access. So we did our best to connect them to those different services.
We already know their hours have been cut. So last week, May 25, we organized a food distribution with Second Harvest Heartland, Seeds of Justice, Windom CIC volunteers, United Community Action Partnership to try and get some of those food resources out to folks as well.
CATHY WURZER: Do any of these workers have families or children?
GABBY NELSON: Yeah. So they were brought over here individually, but we know many people brought their families. And many individuals started having families once they were here. There's lots of young kiddos, US citizens.
And so one of the issues that we were seeing is getting these kids' passports and such in order. So we've coordinated with caseworkers at Tina Smith and Amy Klobuchar's office to try and get an expedited passport process in place. But 10 days is still a really tight turnaround for them.
CATHY WURZER: Maria, back to you, I know Highlife gave the option for many of these workers who arrived from Mexico to go back to the border sometime this month. Do you or Gabby know how many people are taking that opportunity? Or are they going to stay?
MARIA GUERRERO: I think there are only a few that are going back, because most of them that I know all the people-- because some got offers elsewhere or they just took off to back home once this process started and being in that limbo. Because they would say, yeah, they would give them letters that there's still two weeks more left.
And some took off. And then some of them stayed. And so it's very little that you hear. So it's just going to be like a handful going back home as far as I know.
CATHY WURZER: Say, Gabby, I know you're in Windom. And now that building is up for auction, I understand. What do you think's going to happen to Windom economically?
GABBY NELSON: The city of Windom has been coordinating so hard with DEED, with these different offices to try and cover the economic impacts of this. We know at least 100 students are connected to Highlife and the Windom area schools. There were apartment buildings being built.
The city worked really, really hard to get an aid package from the state to be able to implement that and ensure that goes on. But we know that businesses, schools, landlords, farmers are all going to be impacted by this closing. And so we're still working really hard to kind of predict and plan for those needs, trying to assess those, and seeing what we can do and organize around as a community.
CATHY WURZER: All right. Both of you, thank you so much for your time and best of luck.
MARIA GUERRERO: Thank you.
CATHY WURZER: That was Gabby Nelson and Maria Guerrero. They're both trying to help workers affected by the Windom Highlife plant layoffs. That starts tomorrow.
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