Eager refugees courted for jobs in tight market
SILVER SPRING, Md. — With forecasters expecting the unemployment rate to sink further this week, the chorus of complaints about worker shortages — from custodians to computer prodigies — has swelled.
The jobs they offer are in out-of-way places; the work is low-paid and disagreeable; and native-born Americans, particularly white men, are generally not interested.
“We have employers call us all the time,” said Wiley, who primarily works with meat-processing plants and lumber mills that have trouble retaining workers even when the jobless rate is well above its historically low level of 4.1 percent.
The economy is on solid footing in the ninth year of the recovery, and even entry-level workers have more options. So in Atlanta, San Diego and other cities, Wiley’s company, East Coast Labor Solutions, finds workers, primarily refugees from war-ravaged countries who don’t speak English. Other candidates include Puerto Ricans discouraged by the island’s lack of jobs, as well as immigrants — here legally, he emphasizes — who have no problem passing a drug test.
“If you told me there’s 1,000 refugees who need work and want work, I could find them work this month,” said Wiley, whose distinctive drawl pays tribute to his Georgia roots. Employers like refugees, he said. There is no question about their legal status, he noted, and they are generally more motivated and work harder, if only because their situation is more dire.
“I’m ready to go right now,” said Ronald Johnson, 37, who showed up one afternoon with two friends at Labor Solutions’ bare, second-floor office in Silver Spring, Maryland. He had heard from others in his community of Sierra Leone refugees that this agency could immediately place anyone willing to move to a nearby state. “I want to go where they pay the most money and charge the least for rent.”
Within an hour, all three men agreed to move to a rural town they had never heard of, to take a job they had never done before.
Citing the need to protect national security and jobs, however, President Donald Trump has moved to sharply limit legal immigrants and refugees, capping the number of refugees at 45,000, the lowest yearly total since the program began in 1975. The actual pace of admittance has fallen below that level, which could make it even harder for meat processors and similarly situated industries to fill their ranks.
“I appreciate what Trump is doing in trying to create more jobs for Americans,” Wiley said, in response to the president’s argument that immigrants are taking work from native-born Americans. “But for some lower-paid jobs that are undesirable, a lot of Americans don’t want to do those jobs.”
Of course they might, if the pay were good enough. When meatpackers were unionized and located in cities like Chicago, hourly wages averaged $20 in today’s dollars, plus generous benefits. In the 1960s, though, packers began moving to rural areas, bringing workers to where the animals lived instead of the other way around. The shift enabled companies to cut wages drastically, escape the pressures of collective bargaining and speed output.
The move from high-wage locations to low-wage ones has become commonplace as the economy globalized, upending stable middle-class communities.
In the international arena, companies like Carrier and Rexnord recently closed factories in the United States and moved operations to places like China, Vietnam and Mexico where labor could be found at cut-rate prices.
But long before complaints about the North American Free Trade Agreement or steel imports from China commanded headlines, a domestic version of this pattern was playing out in some industries. And as the pay decreased, so did the face of the workforce, once dominated by white males. Women, immigrants and people of color now hang chickens on hooks or hack them into parts on an assembly line. They are paid about half of what their counterparts earned four decades ago (after taking inflation into account), and have fewer benefits and protections. Such conditions don’t foster long-term stability. In some plants, employers have to replace up to 70 percent of their staffs every year.
Reducing that churn has become harder as the unemployment rate has dropped and several cities have raised the minimum wage.
That’s where Wiley comes in. His recruits come from parts of the globe like Africa and Mexico that Trump has repeatedly disparaged. Some are new arrivals sleeping on a relative’s couch; others are longtime residents struggling with low pay, high rents, long commutes or just a stretch of hard luck. He typically finds work for a few dozen a month.
“I’ll take any job,” said Suleiman Kabba, 42, who came to the Labor Solutions office in Silver Spring, a Washington suburb, with Johnson. He had recently moved to Maryland and was down to his last few dollars. He needed to save up to replace stolen identity documents and buy airline tickets to bring over his two children, still in Sierra Leone. He removed a pair of tinted glasses and pulled at the collar of his USA T-shirt to show the scars from a bullet that had traveled through his eye and out the left side of his neck when his family was attacked during the civil war there.
Haimonet Demcasso, the recruiter, explained, in two languages, the broad outlines of the jobs. The poultry-plant work pays roughly $11 to $13 an hour in small towns in Virginia and West Virginia. Labor Solutions would transport the recruits, find apartments for them to share, help fill out paperwork, and advance them the money to cover their travel, the first month’s rent, the security deposit, heavy work boots and home essentials. They could pay it back out of their paychecks with no interest at a rate of $60 a week.
They are paid the same as other plant workers, but they are employees of Labor Solutions for up to a year, until they’ve repaid their loans.
More details about the job itself would come once they went through orientation at the plant, Demcasso said.
For Johnson, who had recently lost his job as a van driver and was already dodging calls from debt collectors, upfront money made the difference. “For me to rent an apartment, I need a boatload of money,” he said.
His wife, Elizabeth, was more skeptical when she heard about the deal. An apartment and two jobs just waiting for them? Money up front? There were plenty of unscrupulous recruiters who made all kinds of promises and deceived trusting job seekers — a cruel and sordid side of the industry that Wiley acknowledged is all too common.
“I was dragging my feet,” Elizabeth Johnson said. But after coming up for a day to check the area and the classrooms her two children would attend in Woodstock, Virginia, she was convinced. “I loved the school just by looking at it,” she said. Most important, she saw no signs of the drugs, violence and bullying that plagued the White Oak neighborhood of Silver Spring, where they were temporarily doubled up with family. “And there’s no roaches and mice or rats.”
Wiley said that when he started working with refugees, mostly Burmese, in 2008, he didn’t offer money and support, but he soon realized that the job placements wouldn’t last without it. Resettlement agency assistance was temporary and many job seekers didn’t speak English. So he hired case managers to translate, help with school enrollment, drive recruits to the supermarket, find English classes and more.
Berhane Teklay, who once hung live chickens upside down in a plant, handles the 30 or so workers Wiley has placed in Woodstock.
Originally from Eritrea, Teklay arrived after winning a visa in the 2011 diversity lottery — a program the Trump administration recently vowed to shutter. This year, he became a U.S. citizen.
“You need somebody to help you get into the system,” Teklay said, and that’s what Labor Solutions does. For refugees who can’t speak English well or drive a car, he said, a job in a meat-processing plant is about the best they can do.
Fluent in Arabic, Amharic, Tigrinya and English, Teklay acts as interpreter, administrator, real estate agent, loan office, complaint bureau and overall fixer.
For a year, he helped Waleed Kanuo, Elfadil Daoud and Ali Hamid, refugees from Sudan, settle into an apartment in Woodstock and navigate the system, until they transferred to working directly for the poultry-plant operator. Gathered in the living room of the sparsely furnished apartment they share, all three said they were saving money and grateful to Labor Solutions for finding them a job.
For others, the experience is more mixed.
Kabba, for instance, said he had not known that he would have to pay an additional $25 every week for the daily mile ride from a co-worker to and from the plant. Nor did he understand that he would be working for Labor Solutions and not the processing plant directly, which he said makes it more difficult to switch departments, and means he is not yet eligible for the health benefits or 401(k) plan.
At the same time, plant conditions are regimented and unforgiving, with 30 minutes for lunch and two 10-minute bathroom breaks that workers said don’t include time to change out and into cumbersome protective garb. And small infractions can lead to firing.
But as a friend of Kabba’s says, that’s the way it is in America: They tell you all the sweet stuff, and not the salty. “It’s a job,” Kabba said of the $11.70-an-hour work, which pays a $1-an-hour bonus if he’s on time every day of the week. “You can’t pick and choose.” And he loves Woodstock’s quiet.
Teddy Marchant, 32, a former housemate of Kabba’s, did not. Within a couple of days, he realized that the small town, without so much as a movie theater, wasn’t for him. He needed the cash, he said, but “if I had my way, I don’t think I’d be here.” He soon left.
Elizabeth Johnson had time to check out the place but not the $11-an-hour job she was promised. “I had no idea of what I was going to see,” she said.
When she walked into the plant, it was a shock. “Oh, my God, I saw chickens — lots and lots and lots of chickens, 350,000 chickens a day,” she said, still shaking her head at the looping conveyor belts crowded with birds. “If you scratch your face or bend down, you might miss a couple of chickens.”
She clocked in at 5:30 a.m. and rotated hanging up the dead chickens, cleaning out guts and cutting off legs, wings and backs to ready the meat for packaging, she said.
It is physically demanding, repetitive and smelly, Johnson said.
A smell that her husband noted was also “the smell of money.”
Ronald Johnson, who was born in Libya and lived in Sierra Leone before moving to the United States 16 years ago as a refugee, was initially the most enthusiastic about the job. In November, he was jogging with his children in the morning, thinking about getting a second job to build up savings, and dreaming about a music studio where he could compose and record the music that played endlessly through his head.
But by January, he was out of a job for a violation of the processing plant’s policy. A couple months later, Elizabeth Johnson also left the plant after finding another local job.
The work is not for everyone, Wiley concedes. But he maintains that for many refugees, including Teklay, his Woodstock branch manager, it provides a foothold.
“They want the American dream, and they don’t mind starting off on the bottom,” he said. “There’s a lot of unskilled work in the U.S. that Americans will not do, and these people are doing it.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
PATRICIA COHEN © 2018 The New York Times
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