Thursday, November 30, 2006

Homeless, Felons on Probation Help Fill Poultry Jobs After Immigration Raid
Atlanta Journal Constitution - November 27, 2006

Stillmore — Felons on probation and homeless men have filled some of the poultry jobs left by illegal Mexican laborers deported in raids two months ago.

About 40 convicted felons from the Macon Diversion Center are bused in each day to work at the Crider Poultry plant in Stillmore — the focus of the raids.

Additionally, 16 men from the Garden City Rescue Mission in Augusta have come to work in the plant. Several from the mission have become shift leaders, said Lavond Reynolds, director of men's housing for the mission.

"Compared to the attrition rate [at the plant] in general, these guys have really stuck so far," Reynolds said. The mission might send another 15 soon.

Still, that's just a drop in the bucket. The Crider plant is operating at about 450 employees — less than half its preraid level of 1,000, company president David Purtle said.

The Mexican population in Stillmore has plummeted since immigration officials first visited the Crider plant in May, town residents said. Immigration agents estimated that 700 workers were using fraudulent IDs. The company began checking documents and confronting employees. Many were fired and hundreds of illegal immigrants left town on their own throughout the summer.

Then, over Labor Day, federal agents rounded up and deported more than 125 illegal immigrants working at the Crider plant or living in Emanuel and surrounding counties.

That left Crider with a big labor gap, and finding workers to fill the jobs has been a challenge. Among the efforts and changes at the plant since the raids:

• The company outsourced 250 jobs in its raw deboning operation to Alabama.

• Some processing has slowed because of the downturn in the work force.

• Crider has turned to an outside company to hire about 100 workers to clean the plant each night.

• The company raised starting wages by about 40 cents and now offers attendance bonuses to new hires. Before, it took a year to be eligible for the extra pay. (Starting base pay is $6 an hour; most workers earn more through bonuses and overtime.)

• The company is spending more on hiring and training as turnover is high among new employees.

For instance, Crider advanced money to house the homeless men from the mission in trailers and to turn on their utilities. The company also pays to bus state probationers from Macon each day and is busing workers from surrounding communities.

Purtle said about 50 percent of applicants since the raids either did not pass the drug test or reference checks. Many of those who did have poor attendance or quit quickly.

"Our challenge is — in hiring unskilled people — their ability to understand what's expected of them," Purtle said. "Attendance is important. No acting up, no mouthing off. They just haven't learned."

The raids not only affected the chicken plant, but the surrounding community.

At least two landlords near Stillmore who rented to immigrants have put their properties up for sale. The Hispanic-run stores in town are operating at reduced hours.

"There's no people anymore," said Liliana Santos, 24, the clerk behind the counter at Salinas Surcusal No. 2 in downtown Stillmore.

"They don't have any jobs," she said in Spanish.

"Before, people would be walking around downtown," said Manuel Mendoza, 22, who stopped to buy tortillas. The store's jukebox played Mariachi music to an empty sideroom pool hall.

Mendoza has been in the United States 10 years and says he has a Social Security card and a job making pallets for $8.50 an hour. His hometown of Oaxaca, Mexico, has descended into anarchy with armed fighting in the streets, and he is in no hurry to return home.

Pastor Ariel Rodriguez drives around Stillmore, explaining what happened to each of the Mexican families that used to live in trailers and apartments.

"The majority of people have gone to Kentucky," he said. They knew a priest who used to live in the area and followed him up there, Rodriguez said. Other residents have gone back to Mexico.

At least one local businessman said his business has gone up since the raids. The churn of new folks applying and working at Crider has brought new customers to Mighty Mike's Hot Stop gas station and convenience store in town.

"They come in here and shop," said manager Willie Gordon. "Our inside sales have gone up $3,000 per week since the raids."

It's been a mixture of new clientele. But Gordon, who is African-American, attributes a good part of the increase to more black workers coming into town. Gordon notes: "You gotta be legal now."

SOURCE: Atlanta Journal Constitution