Tyson Foods officials have been working with the imam of Shelbyville's Islamic mosque to bridge the cultural gap that exists between the Somali community and the rest of the public.
Representatives of the company also dismissed lingering charges of Tyson hiring illegal immigrants as "myths and misconceptions."
Susan Brockway, manager of community and external relations, and Gary Mickelson, director of media relations, sat down with the Times-Gazette to speak about the refugee issue, which have been a hot topic of discussion with readers.
Lola Hithon, human resource manager for the Shelbyville facility, has been in regular contact with Imam Haji Yousuf, the spiritual leader of the Somali Muslim community here, helping with issues such as cultural differences, how to get things translated and how to get services to the refugees.
Informed sources also told the Times-Gazette this week that 80 to 100 Somalis who lived in Emporia, Kan., where a Tyson meat packing facility was recently downsized leaving nearly 1,500 without work, would be coming to Shelbyville. Micholson confirmed this, but stated the number working at the Shelbyville poultry facility would be 24.
Tyson officials were in town last week speaking to various landlords and hotel owners about housing for the refugees, as well as holding one-on-one conversations with business owners and representatives of the school system.
"We don't know how many children may or may not be coming," Brockway said. "But this is another misconception ... not all the people that are coming from Emporia are non-English speaking, so while their culture and customs may be different, their needs in the school system are not going to require tutors or English as a Second Language."
Some Tyson officials will be working with the refugee resettlement center in Nashville for services that may be needed for the Somalis. Brockway mentioned that some of the refugees have been working for Tyson for some time and "have become quite self-sufficient."
Last year, the company did about 26 "perception surveys" about their plant population with Shelbyville business leaders, members of government of both the city and Bedford County, law enforcement, education and health care professionals. The surveys were done to open up communication, Brockway said, asking what Tyson was doing well and not doing well and what needs to change.
All surveys were anonymous and those taking it were free to say anything they wished. Tyson took that information back to the Shelbyville facility and talked to key management about making adjustments in communication with the community and within the plant, rather than policy changes.
"A lot of this was just opening lines of communication," Brockway said. "We feel we've been fairly successful with that."
Others have approached the company about "individual concerns," she said, speaking with both the plant manager and human resources person at the Shelbyville facility about the differences in culture between the Somali refugees and the rest of the Bedford County community.
"Not that anyone is doing anything wrong, but just wanting more information about different cultures that are here at the plant," Brockway explained. She added that the company "saw some opportunities to open up some additional dialogue." after the concerns were expressed.
Addressing reports of unlawful activity by the refugees, Brockway said that they encourage their workers to be law abiding and "play by the rules" and have also been in consultation with Shelbyville Police Chief Austin Swing about the issue.
"If anyone is doing anything they are not supposed to do, it's not good for us, it's not good for you," she said. "I don't think any employer wants their workers not to be good neighbors."
Brockway added that the refugees were taxpaying members of the community who are making a contribution.
"I talk to a lot of people who are happy to have them here. I think it is a culture shock for everybody, we just all have to learn to communicate better and how to understand each other more and why we do the things we do.
During Wednesday's meeting between Tyson Foods president and CEO Dick Bond and county officials, Kathy Johnson, who is vice president of employment compliance for the food giant, said that the company has zero tolerance for employing people who are not authorized to work in America.
Johnson stated that the employment documents of every new hire are checked and they are required to fill out a I-9 Employment Eligibility Verification Form. New hires are also required to present documents that provide identity and employment eligibility.
The I-9 form includes a list of acceptable documents and according to the Department of Homeland Security, an employer can not specify which document they will accept from an employee.
Tyson Foods "must examine the document(s) and, if they reasonably appear on their face to be genuine and related to the person presenting them, you must accept them. To do otherwise would be an unfair immigration-related employment practice," DHS states.
Since 1998, Tyson Foods have voluntarily to part in the federal government's Basic Pilot/Employment Eligibility Verification Program, now known as "E-Verify," Johnson said. The program is an Internet-based system operated by Homeland Security in partnership with the Social Security Administration.
It allows participating employers to electronically verify the employment eligibility of their newly hired employees. Tyson also uses the Social Security Number Verification System, which allows users to verify names and Social Security number of employees against government records.
Johnson also said that in addition to those tools, their hiring managers are trained on employment documentation procedures and "work to increase their awareness of identification fraud.
"We regularly audit our hiring process including work authorization documents and also use an independent, outside company, which conducts its own audit of our hiring practices."
If Tyson learns one of its workers may not have authorization to work in this county, the company says it takes immediate measures. If the employee is unable to correct any discrepancies in their documentation, then they are released from employment.
Tyson Foods and six managers were charged criminally in December of 2001 with knowingly hiring illegal workers. Two managers at Shelbyville's Tyson facility pled guilty and were each sentenced to one year of probation and a third committed suicide after the charges were made public.
However, following a seven-week trial in 2003, a jury acquitted the company and the remaining three managers of all charges against them.