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In bankruptcy’s wake, a Minnesota meatpacking plant’s visa workers face an uncertain future
Four days after HyLife Foods filed its bankruptcy paperwork, workers anxiously awaited answers from management about its plans for the pork processing plant.
The employees gathered in the plant’s cafeteria before their shifts on May 1 to listen to an executive read a list of what appeared to be frequently asked questions and corresponding answers about the company’s financial situation.
HyLife announced in early April that if it can’t sell the plant, it anticipated laying off the 1,007-person workforce by June 2. An end date has not been set, the company told Investigate Midwest on May 10.
About half of the plant’s workers are employed through a temporary visa program, and if the plant closes, they will have few options outside of immediate return to their home countries.
Many want to continue living and working in the U.S. in order to support families in their home countries, where wages are much lower.
If the company is successful in selling the plant, the buyer could choose to retain the current workforce, the executive explained during the staff meeting, according to four HyLife employees who were in attendance that day.
Around 500 HyLife workers are employed through the H-2B visa program, which allows companies to hire foreign workers on a temporary basis when there aren’t enough Americans to fill the company’s needs, according to U.S. Department of Labor data.
H-2B visas are valid for one year at a time but can be renewed annually for up to three years. The employees interviewed by Investigate Midwest all said HyLife promised to employ them for three years.
The employees requested anonymity for fear of retaliation by HyLife and to protect their future job prospects.
HyLife currently employs more H-2B workers than any other meatpacking plant in the country — twice as many as the next-biggest H-2B employer in the industry, according to the DOL data.
If the plant closes, the visas will be immediately terminated and HyLife will have 10 days to return the hundreds of H-2B workers to their home countries.
“We acknowledge this is a challenging situation for our employees and the Windom community,” HyLife CEO Grant Lazaruk said in a statement provided to Investigate Midwest. “In an effort to be transparent, we have shared numerous updates with our team on the plant sale process. Our goal remains to find a buyer so that operations may continue under new ownership.”
H-2B visas cannot be transferred to another employer. Few options exist that would allow the workers to stay in the U.S. legally, and each of the potential legal paths come with strict eligibility requirements and some downsides.
Employees told Investigate Midwest they’re worried about what will happen if the plant closes. In addition to supporting themselves in Minnesota, many send money home to their families.
“Many of us are paying off cars, or we signed leases” in the U.S., an employee said in Spanish. “We don’t know what will happen with the company. We can’t call the bank and say, ‘Wait for me because the company is out of money.’”
One employee said he came to the U.S. to support his daughter through university. Another said he started working at HyLife in order to purchase a house for his family back home.
HyLife, based in Manitoba, Canada, is Canada’s largest pork producer, according to the company’s website. Charoen Pokphand Group, a Thai holding company, has held a majority stake in HyLife since 2019.
Fewer than 5,000 people live in Windom, located in the southwest corner of Minnesota.
When the executive finished reading the prepared statements — including an announcement of reduced hours — to the group of employees in the cafeteria, he left, the four attendees said. Some workers protested, saying they still had unanswered questions, workers told Investigate Midwest. Most stayed in the cafeteria instead of leaving to prepare for their shifts.
The executive returned to the cafeteria. One employee started recording, sensing the rising tensions in the room, he said.
The executive told employees to get to work immediately or be fired. If the H2-B workers didn’t go to their shifts, he said, they would be sent home.
In a video clip reviewed by Investigate Midwest, the executive’s interpreter repeated his words in Spanish.
“…they’re going to fire you,” the interpreter said. “Those with H-2B, what does that mean? Return to Mexico.”
The crowd grew noisy in response. Some workers shouted and some whistled. Others quickly headed for the door.
“That’s a threat,” multiple women said in Spanish in the background of the video.
The employee who recorded the video requested that it not be published because it could identify him and put his job at risk. Investigate Midwest provided HyLife a detailed description of the events of the May 1 meeting based on the video and interviews with four employees who were in attendance.
In statements provided to Investigate Midwest, HyLife did not answer questions about the May 1 meeting.
“As you can appreciate, having full context matters, and it is difficult to comment on a video Investigate Midwest refuses to share,” the company said in a May 10 statement.
The four attendees said they left the meeting with unanswered questions.
“People were a little angry because they aren’t sticking to the hours they promised us,” one employee told Investigate Midwest in Spanish. “And to talk to the people like that…it was like we were animals or something. It’s like they were making a threat against us.”
Few options for those wanting to remain in U.S.
In a church basement in downtown Mankato on May 7, HyLife workers with H-2B visas gathered to learn about the immigration options available to them.
Organizers had estimated around 100 people would attend. By the end of the meeting, more than 250 sat in folding chairs, leaned against the walls or watched through open doorways. Several tended to infants during the three-hour gathering.
HyLife employees organized the meeting with support from Unidos MN, a nonprofit organization advocating for social and economic equity for Latinx families in Minnesota.
Over Zoom, an immigration lawyer answered questions and outlined the paths available to the employees, if they wanted to continue living and working in the U.S. in the event that the plant closes.
“You could feel the tension, you could feel the desperation,” said Rayito Hernandez, lead organizer of Unidos MN, who participated in the meeting. “They were like, ‘We want an answer.’”
Some workers also addressed Minnesota State Rep. Luke Frederick, a member of the state’s Democratic party, and whose district includes the city of Mankato, where many workers live.
Frederick told Investigate Midwest that some of the current state legislature’s initiatives, such as issuing driver’s licenses regardless of an individual’s immigration status and expanding paid family leave, benefit H-2B workers in Minnesota.
But the core issue is one of federal immigration law.
“What can we do at the state?” Frederick said. “That’s the question I’ve been asking.”
HyLife said it is following Labor Department and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service frameworks.
“If the plant closes before our H-2B work authorization ends, we are prepared to help (H-2B workers) identify possible employment options,” the company said in a statement provided to Investigate Midwest. “If opportunities are unavailable, HyLife will provide transportation for a safe return home.”
If the plant closes but the employees want to continue working in the U.S. on an H-2B visa, they may need to return to their home country and reapply for the program, according to federal immigration law.
There is a possibility for workers to obtain another H-2B job in the U.S. without returning to their home countries, said attorney Erin Schutte Wadzinski, co-owner of Kivu Immigration Law Firm in Worthington, Minnesota, which hosted a separate legal clinic for HyLife workers on April 29. The prospective employer would need to already have a Temporary Employment Certification from the Department of Homeland Security, have open H-2B positions and submit the new employee’s H-2B paperwork before the existing visa expires.
“There is no obvious pathway that is available for everyone,” Schutte Wadzinski said. “Some individuals might be eligible for family petitions. Other individuals are genuinely fearful of returning to their home country and wish to seek asylum in the United States.”
Being granted asylum would permit an individual to live and work in the U.S. In order to qualify for asylum, the person must prove that they are subject to persecution in their home country due to their race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a specific social group.
During the asylum application process, and after asylum is granted, petitioners can’t visit their home countries. (H-2B visas allow the workers to travel internationally. Hourly HyLife employees employed for less than five years receive 15 vacation and personal days, according to a 2022 copy of the plant’s employee handbook.)
Family visas require sponsorship by an immediate relative, like a parent, spouse or adult child who is a citizen of the U.S.
There are other visas available — for victims of human trafficking or crimes that take place in the U.S. Applicants have to weigh the pros against the cost, processing times and international travel restrictions of each option.
Nonresidents who can prove they were victims of or witnesses to violations of labor rights can also request deferred action from the DHS. Deferred action allows non-resident immigrants to temporarily live and work in the U.S. without fear of deportation.
Tensions rise as potential plant closure looms
On April 10, in compliance with federal regulations, HyLife Foods sent a letter to the state government informing officials — and its employees — that the company would have to lay off its workforce if the company didn’t find a buyer.
Two and a half weeks later, the company filed for bankruptcy.
“On April 27, 2023, Windom entered Chapter 11, a formal court-supervised process, for our production plant in Minnesota,” HyLife president and CEO Lazaruk said in an April 27 statement provided to Investigate Midwest. “This helps us to move forward with our restructuring plan while we pursue a potential sale, so that the plant can continue under new ownership.”
The executive reiterated that the company was still seeking a buyer at the May 1 employee meeting, four workers told Investigate Midwest.
“We are still actively seeking a buyer,” HyLife said in a statement provided to Investigate Midwest on May 10. “An end date for Windom has not been set. We continue communicating with our team and will give additional updates as more details become available.”
As of May 12, the company had not announced a sale.
HyLife said it has reduced the scheduled work hours for employees by 25%, the maximum allowable under H-2B visa regulations, because the plant is processing fewer hogs.
“We understand this personally impacts our employees and have shared additional Minnesota Unemployment Insurance resources to help support individuals exploring top-up options,” the company said in its statement.
Many non-H-2B employees have already left for other jobs, employees said, leaving the rest of the workforce short-staffed. Work has become more difficult in recent weeks due to the departures, they said.
One employee said he’d had to move to different positions in the plant multiple times recently, including working in the slaughter area for the first time, where the smell of the pig blood and excrement makes him nauseous, he said.
Conflicts are increasing among coworkers and between workers and their supervisors, the employee said.
“There’s a lot of pressure,” he said in Spanish.
Because their visas aren’t transferable to other workplaces, and they don’t have jobs lined up in their home countries, three employees who spoke to Investigate Midwest said they plan to work at HyLife until their visas expire.
“Life must go on,” one employee said. “Until the last day of the plant, we will still be here and we will still continue to work.”