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Workers pleased with beef plant jobs

March 26, 2002|By DARREN SIMON

Staff Writer

The work is not easy. It's cold — 48 degrees. The roar of air conditioners thunder overhead, mixed with the whine of power saws.

The assembly line is constant — one by one some 1,100 cattle carcasses are moved into the processing facility over the course of a day, where they are cut up and the beef prepared for packaging and shipping.

For the 400 employees on the processing side of the new beef plant in Brawley, it's another day of full-time employment.

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Dressed in white lab coats and bundled under jackets, sweaters, gloves and scarves — and some in ski masks — they work eight-, nine- and even 10-hour days.

The labor may be tough and the conditions frigid, but workers say it's good work and good money and a job that allows them to stay in the Valley with their families.

They do not have to follow a crop or worry about unemployment and they have benefits, something some of the employees have not had previously.

On a recent day, officials with Brawley Beef, the company that owns and operates the plant, gave a reporter and photographer a tour of the plant.

They provided access to all areas of the plant, from the harvesting side where cattle are slaughtered to the processing side where beef is cut into the boneless ribs, chucks, loins and rounds that will make their way to retailers throughout the country and world.

The tour included a look at the three wastewater lagoons that have been a source of controversy as odors emanating from the ponds have angered some in the community.

The county Air Pollution Control District appeals board has a meeting set for Thursday in the Brawley City Council chambers to consider issuing an abatement order that would require action to deal with the smell.

Beef plant officials say they are taking steps daily to address the odor and they say by April 30 the smell will cease to be an issue.

But the stink issue was not the focus of the tour.

Beef plant officials opened the facility to the press to show what goes on inside each day, what makes the facility, they say, better than other beef plants, and to discuss the hopes and dreams of those who have invested millions of dollars to make the facility a reality.

At the heart of the facility are its employees. There are about 600 full-time employees.

On the processing side, employees are positioned in assembly-line fashion at their work stations, cutting and "de-boning" their portions of the beef into the sub-primal beef products — otherwise know as boneless chucks, ribs, loins and rounds — that will be packaged and shipped.

"These employees in here; they are damn good employees," said Sam Faulk, manager of the processing facility, as he stood on a catwalk overlooking the large processing complex.

From the catwalk the expanse of the processing building can be seen. Workers stands at stations, constantly cutting and slicing fat and bone from the beef into the proper products for packaging.

Faulk said, "I've never had a better team of managers than what I have here now. That alone makes it better than any other plant."

On the floor, Frankie Villarreal, who supervises one of the work stations, oversees his teams — made up of those who have been with the company from the start and some who are just learning the job.

Villarreal has been in the beef plant industry for eight years and was recruited to Brawley Beef from a beef plant in Texas.

"I try to guide these people in the right direction," said Villarreal. "It's a tough job, but you try to make it a little easier for them."

Members of his team agree the work is tough but they say it is a good opportunity.

Ronnie Gibson of Brawley said, "It's very hard work. It's constant."

He said at the end of the day his hands hurt because the workers are using their hands all day to cut beef. He said he goes home "very tired."

Still, he said, "It's better money and it is a better opportunity for me."

Gibson earns $8 an hour and as soon as he reaches a "qualified" status his pay will go up to more than $9 an hour. The average employee earns $8 and $11 per hour, depending on experience.

One employee who asked not to be identified said before he was hired by Brawley Beef he was working in the fields and following the crops.

"Now I don't have to leave," he said.

Maria Elena Vasquez, one of many women seen working on the floor, said, "There weren't any steady jobs out there. Here there is good pay."

One other employee stopped a reporter and said he wanted to make a comment. Travis Thomas said he is grateful to have the opportunity to work at the beef plant. He said he has worked there since the plant opened and he has reached "qualified" status. He has health, dental and life insurance, which he has not had before.

"I'd like to thank God because I haven't missed one day and for giving me the job at Brawley Beef," Thomas said.

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