Kosher meatpacker struggles after immigration raid

POSTVILLE, Iowa (AP) - August 17, 2008 The biggest problem is hiring people to replace the 389 workers arrested by immigration agents, managers told The Associated Press. More than 1,000 people worked at the plant before the May 12 raid.

And then there's the possibility that the state attorney general could file charges against the company following an Iowa Labor Commission investigation that alleged 57 cases of child labor law violations.

"Sure, it is challenging," said Chaim Abrahams, a manager at Agriprocessors. "Running a plant day to day no matter what is challenging. But we are ambitious and determined to restore it. "And we're doing it with a smile."

That optimism isn't shared by some in this isolated community of 2,200 people in northeast Iowa. Many blame Agriprocessors for the tumult surrounding the raid, which pushed people out of jobs and homes, and in some cases separated children from parents.

Some residents said they're aghast at stories they've heard about conditions inside the plant, the town's biggest employer, where workers have complained of physical abuse by managers, wage violations and the hiring of underage employees.

"It would be great to have the plant but have it run by a different company or a different family," said the Rev. Lloyd Paul Ouderkirk of St. Bridget's Catholic Church.

Managers say their biggest problem is hiring enough qualified workers, at wages of $10 an hour or more, to replace the allegedly illegal immigrants caught by the federal raid.

Abrahams said the plant was operating at about half capacity. "There's a lot of ups and downs when you are recruiting so quickly," Abrahams said. "It's a process that's evolving every day ... we're constantly building."

Abrahams explained the company's challenges while walking past workers dressed in blood-spattered smocks, worn over sweat shirts that warded off the chilly temperatures inside the plant. Most wore hair nets and hard hats as well as heavy boots to protect their feet against the inevitable animal flesh and blood found in a meatpacking plant.

Among those hired to recruit workers was James Cord, a regional manager with Jacobson Companies.

"Coming in within six weeks with enough people to get the plant to full capacity isn't a challenge ... it's nearly impossible," Cord said.

Cord said many workers were coming from Texas and the Upper Midwest, especially the Minneapolis area.

David Hayes said he was hired by another job placement firm and came to Iowa from Louisville, Ky. When he arrived in Postville with a busload of other workers, he said, some were rejected because they didn't have enough training.

"I raised a fuss and I think I'm going to start next week," he said. "But some of those guys just got sent on a bus right back home."

The new workers also have drawn complaints by some residents, who said the typically single men were rowdier than the illegal immigrant workers, many of whom had families in Postville.

Mayor Robert Penrod said the first batch of new workers seemed especially troublesome. "Not really a good fit," he said.

Inside the plant, reminders remain of the arrested workers, including safety instructions in English and Spanish.

Outside several rooms in the plant, doorways bear mezuzahs, small cases containing Hebrew verses from the Torah.

"You see it and you are reminded of your commitment to do good," said Getzel Rubashkin, a plant employee and grandson of the plant's owner.

Rubashkin said he believed the plant could recover but that it needed to burnish its image.

"We don't have much of a PR arm," he said.

Earlier this month, a group of rabbis toured the plant and spoke to workers about their conditions. They left satisfied that the plant was safe and properly treating its kosher food, said Rabbi Dovid Eliezrie, a California rabbi sympathetic to the Rubashkin family.

Plant manager Abrahams said such openness is now part of the company's strategy, and workers are focused on day-to-day operations, not the plant's notoriety.

"We are not there yet," Abrahams said, referring to production. "It is a struggle, something we must deal with. But with enough money, and the right time, and if we stay the course there's no reason we can't get there."

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