WASHINGTON - For the second time in three weeks, immigration rallies and marches halted work at several meat processing plants.
Demonstrators, estimated to number 1 million, took to the streets in cities around the country last week to protest strict immigration proposals in Congress. The demonstrations disrupted businesses that employ immigrants, and a number of meat plants, mainly in the Midwest, were closed for the day.
Anticipating disruptions, several companies had planned for plant closures and shifted production schedules. Tyson Foods shut down about a dozen plants, mainly red meat processing facilities, and saw higher-than-normal absenteeism at some locations, a spokesman for the Springdale, Ark.-based meat processor said. The plants reopened the next day.
"Due to factors such as market conditions, and anticipated absences of workers, particularly on the red meat side, we opted to close certain plants and make up for lost production later in the week," said Tyson spokesman Gary Mickelson. "We intend to make up for some of the lost production by operating on Saturday in some locations. Most of the more than 100 plants we own were in operation."
Particularly on the red meat side, many plants had been running at a reduced level of production for some time due to tight cattle supplies and the loss of key export markets, he added. The company did not have an estimate of total economic impact.
Salisbury, Md.-based Perdue Farms shut down eight plants, including two that were undergoing capital projects and having new equipment installed that day, a company spokeswoman said.
"We instead moved production to the Saturday before," said Julie DeYoung, vice president of corporate communications for Perdue Farms. "We had a minimal impact on production because we were able to plan ahead."
Likewise, Minnetonka, Minn.-based Cargill decided a week before the boycott to close down the company's large beef and pork plants, and shift production to later in the week.
"There was not any effect on our orders, our customers or our employees," said Mark Klein, public affairs director for Cargill.
The number of cattle and hogs slaughtered on the day of the demonstrations was down 73% and 51%, respectively, compared to the previous week, a U.S. Department of Agriculture spokeswoman said. On April 10, the number of cattle and hogs slaughtered was down 33% and 15%, respectively, compared to the week before.
The American Meat Institute, based here, was not available to comment on the impact of last week's action on processors and packers. In an earlier statement, the AMI said it opposes the deportation of illegal immigrants already in the country and supports a process by which workers could become citizens. The industry relies on immigrants to fill meatpacking and processing jobs.
The companies SN interviewed said they favor immigration reform that includes a better system for verifying employment.
"We have a position, which is that there need to be better tools for employment verification, and there need to be reasonable approaches for helping immigrants enter the workforce legally, whether that's a guest worker program or a more timely citizenship process," Klein of Cargill said.
Immigration reform should address "sound enforcement to protect America's borders, include a guest worker program, address the issue of undocumented workers, and assist employers in their verification responsibilities," DeYoung said. "We've been working through our trade organizations and through our government relations staff directly in Washington to express our point of view to our representatives."
In a statement, Tyson said the company supports comprehensive immigration reform, and has zero tolerance for employing illegal aliens. The company uses all available tools to make certain employees are authorized to work in this country, including the Department of Homeland Security's Basic Pilot program, which allows access to government databases that assist in the documentation authentication process. But the program has limitations, the company said.
"We believe companies should not be placed in the role of policing who has proper work documentation," Tyson said in the statement.
"If the government isn't going to assume this responsibility, then it should give companies more tools to do the job."