Uncertain future for workers as Windom pork plant faces closure
Manufacturing and pork processing is big business in the small town of Windom. But in April, HyLife Foods outlined an uncertain future for its 1,000 workers as it faces closure.
Half of those workers are being laid off, most of whom are visa contract workers from the Philippines and Mexico. 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS talked to some workers who wanted to remain anonymous in fear of retribution.
“We have families, they are depending on our earrings here,” said one visa employee. “It is still very sad for us. Right now, we are still in shock. We don’t know what to do, we have to start all over again.”
The last day for visa holders from the Philippines was Wednesday; those from Mexico will work until Friday.
“They are the largest employer of H2V visa holders overall nationwide, so it’s an unprecedented situation,” said Tiffany Lamb, the city’s Economic Development Administration Director.
Lamb explained that visa workers have ten days to find a different employer who accepts a work transfer, or they have to return to their country. Lamb added that most visa workers were on contract for three years at HyLIfe, which means the layoffs forced early termination.
“We’ve been coordinating resources and information with community organizations and with individuals within the community to be able to provide any type of requested support that’s available,” she said.
City Administrator Steve Nasby said there’s a significant economic impact anytime a city loses a large number of jobs.
“A lot of them live outside the community presently, and they were going to be moving to Windham. There’s an apartment complex, it’s under construction to house those workers. That is not now going to happen. And so that’s a huge hole in residential but also impacts those local businesses,” Nasby said.
Nasby noted that school districts could also lose up to a hundred students because of the layoffs.
Minnesota Department of Agriculture Commissioner Thom Petersen told 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS that the hog industry is having a tough time. He said COVID changed the food system quite a bit, not just in Minnesota and the United States, but also worldwide.
“We learned in COVID that we have to diversify our food system. We can’t put all our eggs in one basket. That we need these small to mid-sized plants. And so, the department has been working to kind of coordinate all the efforts from a state level to keep that plan moving and operating,” Petersen explained.
State officials say the bankruptcy court is currently going through an auction for the plant, which started last week. He said he’s optimistic a buyer will come forward.
“It’s a very nice plant. It’s had a lot of updates to it. And so I think that that’s attractive, and then with the state coming forward with $14 million, that will help ease some of the burdens as well on a new buyer as well,” said Petersen.
But even with that hope in mind, current HyLife Foods employees say it doesn’t change anything for those who have already been let go.
“I am an American, and I know I’ll be fine, but I look at these people, and they don’t have anything,” said one HyLife Foods employee. “The hallways that hold those people, it’s going to be quiet.”
In a statement to 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS, HyLife President and CEO Grant Lazaruk said:
“Our industry has been facing unprecedented external challenges such as inflation, high grain costs, and exchange rates that are affecting businesses and consumers alike. As a result, we have had to make some difficult decisions.
“In 2020, when we purchased the plant in Windom, Minnesota, our goal was to turn the operations around. Our vision, investments, and strong community involvement are a testament that we intended to be here for the long run.
“On April 10, 2023, we shared that our leadership has been working to sell this facility to ensure that the business continues and is properly capitalized for the future.
“This means we intend to continue producing high-quality products while this sales process plays out. We want to sincerely thank our team. This is an extremely hard week, and we are unquestionably sad. We are doing our best to share the information we currently have.”HyLife President and CEO Grant Lazaruk