Six months after HyLife shut down, former workers hope for ‘better life’ if plant reopens

A medium telephoto view of a pork plant's sign
The former Hylife pork processing plant in Windom is pictured with updated branding of new owners Premium Iowa Pork, LLC on Dec. 11.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

It’s been about six months since the HyLife pork processing plant in Windom closed. More than 1,000 people lost their jobs. That’s about 20 percent of the southwestern Minnesota town’s population. 

The closure came as Premium Iowa Pork bought the plant in June. Now many of the former HyLife workers are hanging their hopes and futures on the plant reopening this spring. 

In her Windom home. Maria Fernanda Morales Martinez, 22, made herself a snack in her small kitchen. She poured herself some cereal and rummaged in her cabinets for some utensils.

The former HyLife worker has been out of work for six months, struggling to make ends meet. She was one of about 500 workers on visas specifically tied to employment at HyLife. Under H-2B regulations, those workers had to leave the United States quickly if their jobs were terminated.

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A woman opens a fridge door
Maria Fernanda Morales Martinez prepares a snack in her Windom home on Dec. 11.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

However, due to a state investigation into possible wage and hour violations at HyLife, some workers including Martinez were able to apply for what’s called deferred action, which allows them to stay and work in the U.S. for up to two years. 

Her application is still being processed and now, she anxiously awaits a new work permit. 

“I’ve heard that the new plant that bought HyLife is a bigger company,” Martinez said. “So, I hope it does give good results, since it’s difficult to live here without a job.”

In the meantime, however, Martinez doesn’t qualify for unemployment benefits and without that work permit, she said she cannot work legally. She feels stuck in limbo. 

“I can’t complain about HyLife because it was a company that gave us the opportunity to come and work here from Mexico,” she said. “They gave us the opportunity to enter legally into the United States … but since we came here with a visa, we couldn’t complain. Complaining would be like wanting to get fired. And, if that happened we wouldn’t be able to work anywhere else.”

Martinez is one of the workers choosing to wait in Windom, hoping to get a job when Premium Iowa Pork reopens the plant.

Light from a window is cast across a woman's face
Maria Fernanda Morales Martinez poses for a portrait in her Windom home on Dec. 11.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

Kivu Immigration Law in Worthington represented more than 60 former HyLife workers who applied for deferred action. Just over 40 of them obtained work permits, and about 20 more still have pending applications. Attorney and owner Erin Schutte Wadzinski said her clients are understandably anxious, but mostly have been successful in getting work authorization. 

“The former HyLife workers who held H-2B visas are hardworking individuals who came to the United States to work, to be financially independent and to provide for our family,” she said. “So, with that work authorization stripped away from them, that’s got to be a helpless feeling.” 

But not all choose this route, mostly because there are disadvantages with deferred action status. Applicants cannot leave the U.S., possibly separating them from families in their home countries. Deferred action also doesn’t provide any pathway for family members to come to the U.S.  

Wadzinski said some workers abandoned their applications because they were able to transfer their status or get a new status through a new employer certified to hire visa holders. Also she said the new deferred action program stemming from the investigation into HyLife didn’t state whether work authorizations will be renewed once the two-year period ends. 

“My perception is that the day they get their work authorization card in the mail, they go seek employment, and right now, [Premium Iowa Pork] is not an option to seek employment at the moment,” she said. “So, I’m sure they’re working elsewhere, whether there would be interest in transitioning to some point in the future, I don’t know. But, they could have that option, if they so desire, since that work permit would grant them authorization to work nearly anywhere.”

Premium Iowa Pork has not said whether it plans to rehire any of the former plant workers.

When contacted by MPR News for comment, the company referred back to a statement released last fall saying the plant is under renovation. However a company representative says it will reveal its plans in coming months. 

In the October statement Dan Paquin, president of Premium Iowa Pork said “We are excited to be part of the Windom community and continuing to do what we’ve always done — bring high-quality pork products to families’ tables. With that, we’re moving forward with our plans to physically improve the space to create a modern pork processing facility.”

A warning sign on a grocery store door
The entrance to the Latino Universal Grocery Store in Windom is pictured on Dec. 11.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

Hope for a better life

Inside Latino Universal Grocery Store in Windom, owners Janet Hernandez and Victor Acosta wait for customers. The Mountain Lake couple, both 24, saw business slow down after, within the first few months of the plant’s closing, losing their large customer base that mostly worked at HyLife.

Several businesses in downtown Windom have closed since June. Business has fluctuated since then, and while the holiday season saw an uptick of customers, Hernandez said it hasn’t been the same. Customer budgets seem tighter, and grocery prices haven’t gone down much.

She and Acosta have been following updates on Premium Iowa, hoping to coordinate the opening of their new grocery store location in Windom with the plant’s reopening. However, they say there’s also a little skepticism in the community as many people have seen the Windom plant change hands several times. 

Two people stand next to shelves in a grocery store
Latino Universal Grocery Store owners Victor Acosta (left) and Janet Hernandez on Dec. 11.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

“There’s a little bit of relief, but at the same time, how long is it going to last?” Hernandez said. “Because, usually there’s bad luck. I don’t know what’s going on, but they usually close after a few years or something happens. And well, it’s like you got to take the opportunity at the moment and see what you can do.”

A former HyLife employee, Yolanda Cazares, 57, shops at Latino Universal Market. She chats with Hernandez and Acosta, sharing that she and several other workers didn’t get their last paychecks or paid vacations from HyLife when the plant closed. 

“It’s everybody’s problem,” Cazares said. “For everybody it’s a problem. The company no pay [sic] is one problem. Not paying for my vacation, for the people … what happened? No pay for the people who worked in the company, it’s everybody [sic] problem now.”

Still life goes on. With Hernandez translating, Cazares said many former workers are worried. Especially young families with kids to feed. 

“They’re hopeful that they [will] open, because they’re waiting on that,” Hernandez said. “Everything goes [well] for them, things could change to a better life.”

A woman sits behind a counter
Janet Hernandez works at the front counter of the Latino Universal Grocery Store in Windom on Dec. 11.
Ben Hovland | MPR News