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Thursday, June 30, 2016

Tyson jobs led Somalis to Shelbyville

Thursday, December 27, 2007

As with any mass migration of people throughout history, folks go where they can find their fortunes and a place to raise their families.

So when the State Department began to place thousands of Somali refugees in cities and towns across the country over the past several years, they moved to towns where the best opportunities existed.

And just as many Hispanics have found over the past decade, who came to this country with few modern skills and no knowledge of the language, for hundreds of Somalis, Bedford County has been an attractive place to find a job and begin a new life.

"Refugees are expected to become self-sufficient as quickly as possible, so early employment is a must," Regina Surber, director of community services in Tennessee for the Department of Human Services (DHS) said. "Resettlement agencies focus the majority of their initial and long-term services on finding employment."

To do so, the agencies build relationships with local employers to assist in the refugees' finding a job, Surber explained.

"Obviously, language and culture issues create obstacles that must be overcome for the entire refugee families if they are to become self-sufficient," Surber says.

So the case managers in the resettlement agencies work with the family during their initial period of resettlement "to assist them in getting acclimated to their new surroundings, schools, housing, transportation, employers, medical care, etc.," Surber stated.

As for jobs, most, if not all of the Somalis in Shelbyville appear to be employed at the local Tyson chicken processing plant, but Holly Johnson, director of Catholic Charities of Nashville said her organization does not have "a formal relationship with Tyson in Shelbyville because it is so far from our office."

Johnson added that while many employers contact them when they have openings, "Tyson is not typically one of these employers."

According to Gary Mickelson, director of media relations for Tyson Foods, out of the 1,100 Team Members Tyson employs in Bedford County, just over one-quarter of them are Somali.

Mickelson stated that just like other prospective workers, the Somalis applied for employment through one of the area Job Service offices.

"They have heard about employment opportunities at Tyson primarily through word-of-mouth," he said. The initial arrival of Somalis happened about four or five years ago, based on Mickelson's recollection.

"Our Goodlettsville ... case-ready meats plant had finished staffing its second shift and began telling applicants of other job opportunities in the company, including positions at Shelbyville," he said. "Some of these applicants subsequently traveled to Shelbyville to apply for work."

Given that the Somalis' culture and religion are vastly different from American norms, Mickelson said that Tyson has done their best to "value and manage the cultural differences of the people we employ."

"Requests for religious accommodation are handled on a case-by-case basis," Mickelson said. "In addition to two, 30-minute breaks per shift, all Team Members are also given a seven-minute break. Some Somali Team Members use this break for their prayer time."

Mickelson added that Shelbyville's facility also has three part-time chaplains who provide a ministry of care and support to employees, regardless of their religion. Tyson is also addressing language issues with bilingual Somali employees "who spend part of their time on the job helping with translation."

As for health concerns, which has been an issue in other communities where Somalis and Tyson Foods work together, Mickelson says that company require all newly hired workers to complete a post-offer health assessment.

"It is a health history questionnaire and asks each new worker questions about their medical background, including whether they have TB or been tested for the disease," he said.

Depending on the responses received in the questionnaire, new workers are sometimes referred to a local medical provider or the county health department. In addition, Wally Taylor, manager of Tyson's Shelbyville Complex Manager, is on the board of directors for the local Community Clinic, which meets monthly to discuss community health topics, Mickelson noted.

Health care issues are major concern that have been expressed by local citizens, citing worries about communicable diseases, such as TB or HIV.

But according to Sherry Adams, spokesperson for the Columbia office of the Tennessee Department of Health, the rate of communicable illness here are no higher than in other areas of the state.

Adams said the department does not release numbers that state a country of origin, but said in the 12 county district they cover, there were only 13 cases of active tuberculosis in 2006 and just seven so far this year.

Refugees entering the country are screened by health care professional and the local offices are notified if there is a problem with anyone in the area.

Adams added that nothing like TB or other diseases can be spread through casual exposure and that the public would be at a very low risk even if someone was infected.

Mickelson added that the transition of the Somali into the Tyson Food workforce has gone "relatively well." The plant conducts monthly communication meetings involving hourly employees, which give workers the opportunity to raise questions or express concerns.

The Somali Community Center of Nashville has also been a resource in assimilation efforts and has been working with plant management on ways to help supervisors better understand the Somali culture, Mickelson explained.

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