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Approximately 200 employees of Pilgrim's Pride in Luverne, Minn., learned they will lose their jobs by the end of this year. The plant will close Dec. 29. (Jessica Buntjer/Special to Forum News Service)

Luverne, Minn., leaders gather to discuss poultry plant closure

LUVERNE, Minn. — Staffers from Sen. Amy Klobuchar and Rep. Tim Walz’s office met with leaders in Luverne, Minn., Monday to discuss assistance and strategies after Pilgrim’s Pride announced last week it will close its Luverne poultry processing operation Dec. 29, leaving approximately 200 employees without work.

Also at the table were representatives from the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED) and the Southwest Minnesota Private Industry Council (PIC), while a staffer from Sen. Al Franken’s office and a representative from USDA Rural Development joined the conversation via conference call.

Luverne Mayor Pat Baustian called for the meeting to learn about assistance programs available to Pilgrim’s Pride employees, as well as options to keep the local workforce in Luverne and Rock County. At this point, it’s still unknown how many of Pilgrim’s Pride’s employees actually reside locally or commute from other areas of the tri-state.

Pilgrim’s Pride is looking to hire 100 people at its Cold Spring facility, and extended that option to its employees last week. Those unwilling to relocate to the central Minnesota community have also been encouraged to apply at the JBS pork processing facility in Worthington, which is a sister company.

Meanwhile, Smithfield Foods is reportedly going to be at the plant Thursday afternoon for a job fair.

“I know there are employees that aren’t going to move,” Baustian said. He asked what types of programs might be available to the workers.

Sandy Demuth, a career specialist with the Worthington office of the PIC, said that while her office has not yet been assigned to assist Pilgrim’s Pride employees, DEED’s Rapid Response Team is working with the company.

Once an office is assigned to assist employees, Demuth said the PIC will set up an office and provide services such as its state- and federally-funded dislocated worker program. There are retraining services available, as well as funds for tuition and books if individuals want to gain skills for a different career. The PIC also assists people with resumes.

“We can do on-the-job training to keep individuals in the community,” Demuth said. “We can also help with relocation. We do assessments with people to help them determine their interests and abilities.”

Unemployment compensation is also administered through the PIC, though Demuth said it amounts to roughly half of the individual’s wages.

“It’s not the perfect thing for people,” she added.

Both Baustian and Luverne Economic Development Authority Director Holly Sammons expressed an interest in keeping Pilgrim’s Pride employees in the local community.

“We don’t want to lose families and workers and our workforce here,” Sammons said.

“Our goal is to keep as many residents of Rock County and here in Luverne in their homes,” added Baustian. “My concern is trying to keep as many of them here as possible, whether we get them in a retraining program or get them employed in Worthington or up in Pipestone.”

Rock County Administrator Kyle Oldre asked about putting together a job fair for the employees. That’s something the PIC will coordinate, but it won’t happen until an office is assigned to Pilgrim’s Pride.

“We’ll set up a job fair as quick as we can,” said Demuth, adding that schools are typically invited to join employers at the fair.

Amber Luinenburg, representing Minnesota West Community and Technical College, said the college will want a seat at the table to give people an opportunity to possibly change their career so they can remain in the area.

Lisa Hughes, project manager with DEED, said that while the Pilgrim’s Pride announcement is unfortunate, it could be a real opportunity for the employees and the community. She encouraged Luverne leaders to re-apply for a $3 million federal grant to help build infrastructure in the city’s industrial park, and asked legislative staffers to garner support for the city’s need.

The city had applied for the grant in the last quarterly round, but didn’t qualify based on its low unemployment rate.

Sammons said with the plant closure, the city should now qualify. The grant is half of what is needed to bring streets and services to the land designated for a shrimp harbor, proposed to be under construction by fall 2018 and producing shrimp in the summer of 2019 in Luverne.

The $88.5 million project, once operational, will employ an estimated 60 people. Those jobs, however, include biologists, engineers and people with higher levels of education.

Hughes reiterated getting infrastructure into the industrial park, which will open the land up to a range of opportunities.

“It would be nice to know what Pilgrim’s Pride is going to do with that (building) asset,” she said, adding that she’s working with businesses who are looking for facilities such as the site in Luverne.

Following the hour-long discussion, Baustian thanked those in attendance.

“It means a lot to our community to know all of our legislators are here to help,” he said.

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