[Masthead] Partly Cloudy ~ 33°F  
High: 49°F ~ Low: 33°F
Wednesday, Nov. 26, 2014

Tyson urged to hire Shelbyville residents before immigrants, refugees

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

(Photo)
A crowd of immigrants awaits entry into the state employment office at 7:15 a.m. Monday. Police officers were standing within and around the immigrants to keep order. (T-G Photo by David Melson
As an organizer from Nashville searched for housing and services for about 50 Egyptian men and their families who want to move to Shelbyville to be close to their new jobs at Tyson Foods, the county mayor said that the food giant should hire Bedford County residents first.

But personnel at the state employment office say they must accept job applications from everyone who shows up, no matter where they are from.

Concerns have once again risen in Shelbyville about immigrants and refugees coming to Bedford County to apply for jobs at the Tyson Foods poultry plant.

Law enforcement were called out early Monday to quell a disturbance at the state unemployment office downtown after about 150 people, including a large number of refugees and others brought from Nashville by various charitable organizations, began cutting in line for the coveted jobs.

But readers of the Times-Gazette and others in the community have expressed anger that the jobs are being taken by large groups of foreign nationals instead of local people.

County mayor Eugene Ray said Tuesday that he "didn't feel real good" about refugees taking jobs that could be filled by local residents.

"We've got people that lost their jobs in plants here like Summit, Sanford and all the other places and I would like to see people here locally have an opportunity for the jobs first."

Ray said that the political refugees should apply for jobs in the areas where they are from, which would be Nashville in this case.

"I know jobs attract people from a lot of places, but I'd like to see our people locally get these jobs first," Ray said, adding that if companies can find local workers, it would be unnecessary to hire from other labor pools.

Moving from Egypt

On Tuesday, Shahdi Michael, an organizer from the St. Mina Coptic Orthodox Church in Nashville, stopped by the police department to gather information about how to find housing for 50 families, mostly immigrants from Egypt, who will be working at the Tyson plant.

"The problem is that they just came from Egypt and they don't have any credit history and I'm looking for an apartment complex where that is not required," he said. An officer with the Shelbyville Police Department suggested Davis Estates, where many refugees from Somalia lived last year.

Michael said he was sent by Father Boutros Boutros to find out what Shelbyville is like, places to shop, the situation with the economy, and what other job options were available if they find themselves without employment with Tyson Foods.

Father Boutros said Wednesday that the Egyptians were not refugees, but legal immigrants that were admitted to this country through a lottery visa.

According to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the Diversity Lottery (DV) Program makes 55,000 immigrant visas available through a lottery to people who come from countries with low rates of immigration to the United States.

Other information requested by Michael was about the crime rate, and what public transportation is available, since the refugees do not currently have vehicles.

"It's going to be hard for these families, but if Tyson is just a mile and a half away, they can get bicycles," Michael said

Other questions were asked concerning the county's educational system, the location of the public library, and the number of banks.

"They don't know anything about the states, so they're starting from scratch," Michael said of the families. "Father Boutros asked me to come down to find out what we can tell these families about this town."

List causes problems

Major Jan Phillips of the Shelbyville Police said that a group of people have been waiting since Sunday afternoon to put in applications for Tyson Foods. Police had been informed the day before that a "pretty large group" would be there.

Phillips assigned an officer to the employment office early Monday, but a second officer was sent when the crowd became "more irate."

The problem appeared to stem from a worker with World Relief who made up a list of who was to be accepted first for applications and was issuing numbers, Phillips said, but the refugees who had stayed overnight became angry about the newcomers who were brought from Nashville that morning breaking into the line.

"There was some controversy ... some said the list wasn't fair, not done properly and he took it upon himself to do that," Phillips said of the World Relief official.

After employment managers contacted their supervisors in Nashville about the situation, "they felt the best thing to do was accept applications from everyone," Phillips said.

The sheriff's department and Tennessee Highway Patrol were called in to join city police and display "a show of force to calm the situation so we wouldn't have problems," Phillips said.

Locals started it

However, the resettlement director for World Relief said Tuesday that it was local residents who jumped to the front of the line at the employment office, not refugees and immigrants.

Nathan Kinser stated that Tyson in Shelbyville is one of the few places in Tennessee that is hiring in the sluggish job market and that World Relief only transported 25 refugees to Shelbyville, although other groups brought others here as well.

Kinser attributed the negative reaction by local residents to the refugees as "miseducation and misunderstanding" about the refugees, whom he described as legal immigrants who are just like everybody else looking for a job.

He stated that many people believe the refugees are illegal immigrants because they speak a different language.

Kinser said refugees are brought to Shelbyville for the jobs as openings occur and Tyson hires them "because they are hard workers."

A van from World Relief stayed with the refugees to take them where they need to go, Kinser said, and they slept on the sidewalk overnight in their wait for the jobs, he said.

The refugees apply for many jobs in Nashville as well as Shelbyville and with the economy in the dumps, the lines at the employment offices are longer, Kinser said.

The refugees have been forced out their countries and are just trying to make a life for themselves in America, he added.

"They're here and they have as much rights to a job as everyone else," Kinser said.

Can't discriminate

Lynda Reed with the Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development in Shelbyville said her office took 112 applications from the immigrants who lined up over the weekend for the jobs.

Tyson had requested 100 referrals for jobs at the poultry plant this week, Reed said.

Gary Mickelson, director of media relations with Tyson Foods, said the company accepts applications through the state employment office and the qualified applicants are sent to Tyson for consideration.

He added that the applications were taken to fill jobs left vacant by "normal attrition."

He also said that Tyson Foods was not aware of any Egyptians coming to work for the company in Shelbyville.

"The exact number of people they need to hire would depend on their turnover rate," Reed said. Last week, Tyson asked for 25 referrals and Monday's request from Tyson was the largest Reed has seen "and will take care of all their referrals for this month."

Ray told county commissioners Tuesday night that Tyson tells the local employment office about its hiring needs -- but that office is a state agency, and relays the information to the state, which is how out-of-town applicants hear about the vacancies.

Those who were left here Sunday afternoon slept in front of the building, with some walking to a nearby convenience store to use the rest room, Reed said.

James Cupp, of the employment office, said they have had long lines before. The main problem was with communications, Cupp said, with so many different languages spoken by the refugees and immigrants.

Once order was restored, "things went smoothly after that," Cupp said.

However, equal opportunity laws prevent the office from discriminating against those who come here to apply for jobs.

"If you or I want to go to Nashville to apply for jobs, we can," Cupp said. "Tyson has even expressed to us they would like to hire locally, but I don't know a legal way around that."

Cupp said that Tyson Foods has not been causing the problems, "but you have this World Relief organization in Nashville ... it is their mission to help people find jobs, people like immigrants that are displaced like Somalians, people from Burma, Egypt ...they go where the jobs are and they are willing to move."