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Packing plant offers temporary homes to new employees

ALEXANDRIA, Minn.—Businesses in communities short of housing commonly donate money to build apartments, or help employees buy homes, but a central Minnesota meatpacker bought an entire apartment building to shelter some of its new employees.

Long Prairie Packing, part of the Wisconsin-based American Foods Group, bought an old apartment building in Alexandria three years ago mostly for new workers.

"We can bring people to the area, get them settled in their jobs," American Foods' President Steven Van Lannen said.

It is not like a company town of years past because the idea is for the workers to move on to other homes, often eight to 10 weeks after starting with the beef packer.

The building had been used mostly by Alexandria college students, Van Lannen said, and its small rooms do not work well for families. But it is a good recruiting tool for people new to the area or the meat packing business, he said.

Packing plants have high turnover rates, so offering new workers a dormitory-like home for a few weeks is a good way to see if they like the job and the area.

The Long Prairie Packing Facebook page this fall posted, in Spanish, about a Houston recruiting trip it was making to find workers for jobs paying $14.30 to $16.80 an hour, with incentives that could boost pay to $19.80 at the beef packing plant in Long Prairie. The plant also has recruited elsewhere, including Puerto Rico and Pacific Ocean islands, mostly in economically poor areas.

Van Lannen said recruits often move to Minnesota on a trial basis, and some decide not to move family to the area because they do not like the job or the community. Those who live in the apartment house do not have to worry about finding a place to live for the first few weeks of employment.

"By then they are either going to try to find something for their families or they are going to go back," Van Lannen said.

With housing available, the next problem for many workers is obtaining credit. That can be eased if a worker has a place to live, Van Lannen said.

The apartment building in Alexandria is about 38 miles from the packing plant, but some established workers drive further to work. In Alexandria, Van Lannen said, workers have a better chance of finding a house than in Long Prairie or other smaller communities.

The 40 units in Viking Apartments usually are full.

"This is really just a tool to attract folks to the area," Van Lannen said.

Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.