Business & Economy

'All those dreams are crushed': Visa-holding employees face uncertainty after Windom plant closure

people walk towards a building
Workers at HyLife in Windom, Minn., enter and exit the building during a shift change on Friday. The plant ceased its operations on Friday, leaving many people unemployed.
Jackson Forderer for MPR News

The HyLife pork processing plant in Windom closed Friday and more than 1,000 workers were laid off. The company has a buyer, but the final details of the sale still need to be worked out.

Meanwhile, the community is also working on very different details. More than one thousand workers just lost their jobs — a fifth of the southwestern Minnesota town’s population. 

In Delaware bankruptcy court Friday morning, attorney Michael Commerford told the court Premium Iowa Pork won the auction to buy the Windom plant. The price is $14 million. He said all parties expect to be able to finalize the sale before the next hearing scheduled for Friday, June 9. 

HyLife confirmed in a statement released on Friday that “the buyer does not intend to retain employees at the Windom plant.”

a group of people share information
Jessica Grack, center, with Michael Foods gets information from Arely Trujllo, right, and Esvaldo Serrato as the company had information tables at Latino Universal grocery store in downtown Windom, Minn. on Friday. The HyLife food plant in Windom ceased operations on Friday, leaving many migrant workers like Trujillo and Serrato looking for new jobs.
Jackson Forderer for MPR News

Community working together

About half of the workers at the Windom plant are in the United States on visas tied directly to employment at HyLife. Under the visa terms they must leave the country within ten days of their employment ending.

In town, the community has been working with recruiters to help laid-off employees and try to find them new jobs. Many wonder how they’ll pay for groceries or rent. 

At a recruitment event outside of Latino Universal Grocery Store in downtown Windom, several HyLife workers considered the possibilities. Among them was Tony Vega, 28. He stopped by before heading to his last shift at HyLife. 

Vega is waiting to hear back from Clemens Foods in Michigan about a possible new visa and contract to work for them. The company is taking between 220 to 250 visa holders. Currently, Vega is on an H-2B visa through HyLife, and so his ten-day grace period just began. 

“I wait here in Windom,” he said. “[I] only wait if the company Clemens contracts [with] me or not. And later, if no contract to me, I can go [to] Mexico, again.”

a group of women pet a dog that is held by a man
Tony Vega shows off his dog Astro to representatives of Michael Foods outside of Latino Universal grocery store in Windom, Minn., before he left to go work his last shift at the closing HyLife food plant. Michael Foods set up information tables at the store to potentially hire workers who lost their job at HyLife on Friday. Astro brought some joy to what was otherwise a sad day for many workers now jobless.
Jackson Forderer for MPR News

Unsure future

There are a lot of immediate details which need attention. However, a lot of people are also thinking about the longer term: what happens to Windom now?

The Windom Area School District is on summer break. Teachers are packing up their classrooms and cleaning out anything left behind in the student’s lockers. But next year, staff says, it will feel very different.

Antonio Cerda Juarez, family and engagement specialist for Windom Area Schools district, worked directly with English Learning students. He saw first-hand how HyLife’s announcement changed their lives. 

Some students whose parents worked on H-2B visas have already left, Juarez said. Others shared with him that they were dropping out in order to start working full-time because both parents lost their jobs from the plant closure. 

“It's just really sad because it seems like all those dreams are crushed,” Juarez said. “All the dreams of being in the U.S. having a diploma from a high school and connecting to the community are gone due to the loss of that company.”          

School officials say as many as 107 students may not return for the next school year.

Principal Bryan Joyce said he's not sure what to expect next fall.  

“We've tried to figure out all of the students that are connected to HyLife through their own parents for themselves, and then try to make our plans based on you know, challenging scenarios, and then try to be as best equipped as we can next year, based on what if this amount of people leaves.”

a woman shows off a backpack to another woman
April Krumwiede shows off a backpack she found to a co-worker while she cleaned lockers on Friday at Windom High School after the last day of school. With the HyLife food plant closing, one of the major employers in Windom, there will likely be changes at the school next fall.
Jackson Forderer for MPR News

Identity loss

HyLife is Windom's largest employer. Since the company filed for bankruptcy in April residents have worried about the community's future.

Mental health specialist Thad Shunkwiler with the Center for Rural Behavioral Health at Minnesota State University, Mankato said this closure hurts more than just economically. He said the plant is woven into the agricultural identity of the area. 

“I think when you talk about pulling that identity away from people, it’s a level of stress that the average person just doesn’t often have to encounter,” Shunkwiler said. “It is an identity crisis which is highly correlated with mental health struggles.”

­­­Attorney Erin Schutte Wadzinski from Kivu Immigration Law in Worthington, Minn., has been working with clients with H-2B visas. About 450 of the visa holders are from Mexico and a further 50 from the Philippines.

She said of those who have not yet found new jobs, some have left already. Yet others are applying for asylum citing unsafe conditions in their home countries. Some have applied for visitor visas just to buy time. 

“It seems like there are no easy solutions here, there is no clear path, there’s no obvious way for them to be able to stay in their home, stay in their community, keep their kids in school, and continue on just simply at a different employer,” Wadzinski said. “That’s not possible.”

She said that it’s tough for many and for the community’s future, that’s tough too. 

“They’re choosing a path that regardless of what path they choose, it likely is going to require them to uproot their lives and transition to a new community or a new state to connect with a new employer or pursue other legal pathways.”

a row of unfinished townhouses
A row of unfinished townhouses being built in Windom, Minn. HyLife food plant was investing in housing for its workers before the plant closed on Friday. The ripple effects of the plant closing will be felt through many aspects of Windom, from education, housing and the local economy.
Jackson Forderer for MPR News
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