STILLMORE, Ga. -- After a wave of raids by federal immigration agents on Labor Day weekend, a local chicken-processing company called Crider Inc. lost 75 percent of its mostly Hispanic 900-member work force. The crackdown threatened to cripple the economic anchor of this fading rural town.
But for local African-Americans, the dramatic appearance of federal agents presented an unexpected opportunity. Crider suddenly raised pay at the plant. An advertisement in the weekly Forest-Blade newspaper blared "Increased Wages" at Crider, starting at $7 to $9 an hour -- more than a dollar above what the company had paid many immigrant workers. The company began offering free transportation from nearby towns and free rooms in a company-owned dormitory near to the plant. For the first time in years, local officials say, Crider aggressively sought workers from the area's state-funded employment office -- a key avenue for low-skilled workers to find jobs. Of 400 candidates sent to Crider -- most of them black -- the plant hired about 200.
A customer at a convenience store in Douglas, Ga., told April Paulk, a part-time clerk, that a recruiter was in town looking for workers. Ms. Paulk passed the word to her husband, 32-year-old Germaine Royals, who had just been laid off from the latest in a series of temporary jobs. Both are African-American.
Less than a month after the raids on illegal immigrants, Mr. Royals and three other workers met at a gas station parking lot and piled into a van sent by Peacock Poultry Inc., one of several contractors hired to fill the ranks of Crider's production lines. Two hours later they pulled into an austere complex of brown dormitories owned by Crider that three weeks earlier had teemed with Hispanics. Mr. Royals stashed two small bags of belongings and a boom box in a dingy room and took his place the next morning on a production line at the chicken plant.
For the first time since significant numbers of Latinos began arriving in Stillmore in the late 1990s, the plant's processing lines were made up predominantly of African-Americans.
The sudden reversal of economic fortunes in Stillmore underscores some of the most complex aspects of the pitched debate over immigration: Do illegal immigrants take jobs from low-skilled American workers? The answer in Stillmore initially appeared to be yes.
But in the months since Crider began hiring hundreds of African-Americans, the answer has become more complex. The plant has struggled with high turnover among black workers, lower productivity and pay disputes between the new employees and labor contractors. The allure of compliant Latino workers willing to accept grueling conditions despite rock-bottom pay has proved a difficult habit for Crider to shake, particularly because the local, native-born workers who replaced them are more likely to complain about working conditions and aggressively assert what they believe to be legal pay and workplace rights.
Americans avoid such labor because "they can't live on those wages, and refuse to," says Debra Sabia, a professor at nearby Georgia Southern University who founded a social-service organization for the area's Latino immigrants. "If you gave a survey to Americans and asked them where they'd want to work, a slaughterhouse would not be on the list. These are not jobs we aspire for our children to take."
The impact of immigration on low-wage workers is likely to come under increasing scrutiny as the new Congress prepares to tackle immigration reform. Last month, federal officials raided facilities owned by meat processor Swift & Co. in six states, which resulted in the arrests of about 1,200 people on alleged identity theft and immigration violations.
Georgia, and particularly the Atlanta region in the north of the state, is home to a large concentration of wealthy and middle-class African-Americans. But in struggling rural towns, the scarcity of work is particularly felt by low-skilled African-Americans who by virtue of poor education, lack of transportation or choice have been unable to follow jobs as they moved away.
Stillmore began the 20th century as a timber and cotton town, sitting at the intersection of three rail lines connecting the busy port town of Savannah to the center of Georgia's cotton kingdom. For decades, anyone willing to grasp a hoe could find at least minimal work every spring and fall, when cotton was planted and harvested. But by the 1950s, cotton was fading, the rail lines were abandoned and a chicken-processing plant -- later acquired by Crider in 1977 -- had become the hub of the local economy.
Until the late 1990s, the plant employed a majority black production line, with whites and some blacks as supervisors, according to current and former employees. By 2000, Latino migrant workers who had long come and gone with the cotton and onion seasons were putting down roots, part of a national trend. The NAFTA free trade agreement hurt many Mexican farmers, prompting a surge of illegal immigration. At the same time U.S. immigration crackdowns made crossing the border more treacherous, prompting workers to settle in the U.S. The South became home to more than a third of the nation's Hispanics. Georgia's share tripled during the 1990s to 435,227, according to U.S. Census estimates. In 2005, the number of Hispanics topped 625,000 in Georgia, making up 7 percent of the population.
The influx of Hispanics meant Crider could maintain its Stillmore roots while drawing on a pool of low-skilled foreign workers to do jobs that held little appeal for native-born Americans. A 2005 Government Accountability Office report on working conditions in the meat and poultry industry found injury rates among the highest of any U.S. industry and cited slippery floors and cold temperatures among the harsh conditions workers endure. Federal workplace-safety inspectors cited Crider in 1997 for a forklift accident in which a worker was run over and killed. Other plants in Georgia have even higher incidences of violations, according to federal records.
With the arrival of so many immigrants willing to toil for rock-bottom wages on brutal round-the-clock shifts, the number of black workers at Crider declined steadily to 14 percent in early 2006 from as high as 70 percent a decade ago, the company says. Wages stagnated at about $6 an hour, just above the U.S. minimum wage of $5.15 an hour, current and former workers say. Crider says it also paid incentives and bonuses not accounted for in hourly wages. As African-Americans left, seeking better pay or to escape the difficult and often bloody work, most were replaced by Latinos, employees say.
Crider officials say the transformation to majority Hispanic work force happened gradually over most of a decade, without any encouragement by the company. David Purtle, Crider's president, says any impression that the company didn't want to hire African-Americans then was "concocted in people's minds who don't know what's going on. The first people you see in our employment office are African-Americans. ... We've never skewed our hiring toward any ethnic group."
But he says Crider faces the same problems that employers in many small towns grapple with. "We have to find a source of employees, and Stillmore will not provide that source. It's not big enough," he says. "We want people who want to work and are willing to work every day."
The presence of so many illegal workers became routine at Crider too. Jose Sauceda first came to the U.S. as an illegal immigrant in 1979 but qualified for legal status under a Reagan administration amnesty program and became a U.S. citizen in 2002. He arrived at Crider in 2004. His wife, Socorro, whom Mr. Sauceda had paid smugglers to sneak across the border, followed him to the poultry plant. As she filled out a job application at the plant, she tried to use for a Social Security number a taxpayer identification number starting with the number "9." According to Ms. Sauceda, a Crider clerk stopped her and said valid Social Security numbers never begin with a nine. "She was very helpful," Ms. Sauceda says. "She kept saying, 'Perhaps you meant to put down a four, or a six?' And I was nervous, so I just chose a six. And that worked." Her application was accepted. Ms. Sauceda went to work on the production line.
Crider officials said recently they doubted Ms. Sauceda's account of her hiring, and that the company wasn't "aiding and abetting" illegal Hispanic workers. Mr. Purtle, the company president, said in an interview that Crider never knowingly violated U.S. immigration laws and wasn't aware that so many of its Latino workers were illegally in the U.S. "Our personnel people have always complied with the hiring laws," Mr. Purtle said.
The company was "taken aback" when federal agents showed up in May asserting that about 700 of its workers were suspected of having false work documents, Mr. Purtle says. Two Crider employees were among four men arrested for allegedly running a document mill, churning out fake green cards and other fake documents. Immigration officials initially worked with Crider over several months to gradually weed out those workers who couldn't prove legal worker status. Then, federal officials became much more aggressive, launching the raid over Labor Day weekend. Agents hauled away about 120 mostly Mexican immigrants, according to immigration officials.
The rest fled Stillmore or went into hiding nearby. Some women and children hid for days in the scrubland and pine woods outside of town without food or shelter while they waited for immigration agents to leave. In the week after the raids, dozens of Latinos crowded a vacant lot beside a bodega, across from Stillmore's city hall, to get on buses operated by a Mexican bus line leaving for other cities in the U.S. or back to Mexico.
For African-Americans, the departure of the Hispanics was a boon. Lisa Shinhoster, 45, and Chris Butler, 22, heard about Crider when an acquaintance of a Crider recruiter walked into an after-hours bar where they were playing cards and announced to the patrons: "Anybody want a job?" The two were soon working at the plant gutting chickens.
For Mr. Royals, the new opportunities at Crider amounted to a windfall after months of erratic work through a temporary labor agency. A high-school dropout who earned his General Equivalency Diploma two years ago, Mr. Royals previously worked nights at a succession of factory jobs. He had just been laid off for the second time in a month when Ms. Paulk came home with word of the Crider recruiter.
Mr. Royals went to Crider with a plan to work as many hours as possible -- he sometimes worked 17 hours a day -- and earn enough to save for a new home and pay off bills. His wife recently took a full-time job as a private nurse for an elderly woman and attends classes at a technical college to earn a license as a practical nurse.
Mr. Royals rose daily before dawn, often eating a breakfast of grits, eggs and sausage served shortly after 5 a.m. at the Crider cafeteria. Mr. Royals was assigned to the plant's packing department, where his squat burly frame and muscular arms made him a natural fit, lifting crates of processed chicken. He says he enjoyed the physical nature of the work and the quick pace made the hours go by quickly.
But for some of the African-American workers who surged into the plant, the unexpected chance to work at Crider didn't turn out well. They described long, arduous schedules, alleged health and safety hazards, and unrelenting supervisors. A Crider spokeswoman says the allegations are the sentiment of "people who are not intent on working."
On Oct. 10, Barbara Smiley, a gregarious and tall 42-year-old from Mount Vernon, about two hours away, was reaching for a chicken that had fallen off a conveyor belt when she smacked her head into a solid steel pole. She went to the nurse's station for an ice pack and then the bathroom to wash down a pain reliever. She says her supervisor reprimanded her for leaving her post, igniting an argument. Ms. Smiley was fired.
"They cussed at me," Ms. Smiley said after the incident , a lump visible in center of her forehead in the shape of a half-dollar coin. "I'm 42 years old. If you cuss at me, I'm going to cuss you back."
The company spokeswoman said Ms. Smiley suffered a mild injury and quit but couldn't confirm other details of the incident.
Legal Hispanic workers who remained at Crider after the raid complain that the new black production line workers are getting higher pay but don't work as hard as their Latino cohorts did. When the plant operated with majority Latino laborers, says Mr. Sauceda, his six-person assembly line produced 80 pallets of poultry daily, with each pallet holding 48 32-pound boxes of chicken. Now, with 15 workers on the line, most of them black, only 45 pallets a day are completed, he says. "The blacks sit in the cafeteria and don't come to the line until the chickens are brought in, but the Hispanics, we spend the time cleaning and doing things that need to be done," says Mr. Sauceda, who has subsequently left the company. Mr. Royals counters that blacks work just as hard as Latinos. He says he sees groups of Hispanics taking extra rests on overnight shifts. "I'm thinking to myself, man, I don't get that many breaks," he says.
Several African-American workers found themselves in pay disputes. Since the illegal immigrants were run out of the plant, Crider no longer directly employs many entry-level workers. Instead, Mr. Royals and many others are classified as independent contractors, working under an agreement between Crider and Allen Peacock, an African-American owner of a recruiting business. Crider paid Mr. Peacock a set rate for the hours his employees work, and he paid the workers. Using Mr. Peacock allowed Crider to quickly hire workers, since the contractor has provided laborers to the poultry industry for years
Every Friday, Mr. Peacock pulled into the parking lot of the dormitory complex and handed out checks, most of which he cashed on the spot -- leaving his employees with no documentation of how much they received in wages or paid in taxes, according to several workers.
After a few weeks on the job, Mr. Royals and other black workers claimed Mr. Peacock was short changing them on hours worked. They said taxes were being deducted even though workers never filled out federal and state tax forms. At one point, Ms. Paulk, Mr. Royals's wife, telephoned Mr. Peacock and demanded an explanation about the paychecks.
Mr. Peacock denied mishandling their wages. "Everybody has to pay taxes," he said in an interview. Mr. Peacock said his workers were all being fully paid and that their taxes were properly collected.
Despite his frustrations, Mr. Royals vowed to keep working. But one morning, Mr. Peacock arrived at the Crider dormitory complex and several workers gathered to register their complaints about wages. In front of the other employees, Mr. Royals says, Mr. Peacock fired him.
Mr. Royals says Mr. Peacock seemed upset that Ms. Paulk had called him on his cellphone on her husband's behalf. "He said I couldn't put my wife in her place," Mr. Royals says. Mr. Peacock didn't respond to subsequent calls seeking comment.
Mr. Royals moved to Augusta, Ga. where he began doing landscaping work.
Since the raids, African-Americans have made up about 65 percent of Crider's work force, while whites are 30 percent and Hispanics 5 percent, according to the company. Turnover has been high. The population of workers hired since last September's immigration raids has turned over three times, according to Crider.
Still struggling to fill its ranks, Crider began busing in felons on probation from a state prison and residents of a homeless mission from nearby Macon. Crider also hired another labor contractor who specializes in Hispanic workers. In recent weeks, dozens of mostly Hispanic workers have appeared at the plant, largely on the overnight sanitation shift. A Hispanic worker at the plant said he recognized some of the new workers as among those who had been dismissed prior to the federal raids for having false immigration documents. A few weeks later, immigration agents returned to Stillmore, and were seen questioning Hispanics at a grocery store.
Crider says it has ended its relationship with the temporary labor provider that rehired some former illegal Crider workers. It says it has also ended its relationship with Mr. Peacock, saying it was a financial decision based on the additional fees they had to pay to the staffing company.
But Crider is still about 300 people short of its work force before the immigration raids. It is now bringing Laotian Hmong immigrant workers and their families from Minnesota and Wisconsin, with hopes that they'll stay on the job and build new roots in Stillmore.