When Tyson Foods announced in August that it would close its 1,500-worker poultry plant in Noel, Missouri, residents knew the rural town would be hit hard. Some began leaving shortly after the company, which employed more than a quarter of the surrounding county, broke the news.
The site closed late last month, one of three closures in October in a broader restructuring that the meat giant said reflected its “commitment to bold action and operational excellence.”
But Jimi Lasiter stayed put.
After 11 years at the plant, he was looking forward to receiving his $1,000 severance check and evaluating the impact of the exodus on his community. By the end of September, he said about half a dozen colleagues had already left his tight-knit team of about 20 people; those who stayed packed office supplies and furniture instead of cuts of meat. She didn’t want to create more work for them by leaving early and she wasn’t in a hurry.
“If I’m going to go somewhere else, especially if I’m going to get something that pays more than $10 or $12 an hour, I’m going to have to drive 45 minutes,” Lasiter said at the time.
However, on Friday he said he had not yet received his compensation, complicating his plans to apply for unemployment benefits and take time to weigh his options. Tyson did not immediately comment on compensation to Noel’s former employees.
Like Lasiter, many workers are weighing their moves in a slowing national labor market. While hiring growth remains strong, people in rural areas without ample employment opportunities nearby face challenges that policymakers, from the municipal to the federal level, say they are trying to address.
Federal data released Friday showed the economy added 150,000 jobs in October, up from 297,000 in September. Unemployment, although still at historic lows, rose to 3.9%. This week, President Joe Biden embarked on a tour of rural communities to highlight more than $5 billion in agricultural and small-town infrastructure investments aimed at spurring growth in places like Noel.
Tyson and Noel officials have held job fairs for laid-off workers and the company said more than 300 employees are moving from the closed facilities to its other sites.
I’ve talked to people who didn’t move and they said, “Let me know if anything comes up.”
Although it is on track to close six plants this year and next, resulting in more than 4,600 job cuts, Tyson is developing two new ones in Danville, Virginia, and Bowling Green, Kentucky, that will employ 850 people in total.
“The first thing I thought was: How can I stay in the company?” said Corina Chinchilla, 32, who worked for 13 years at the Noel plant, where she became a chicken tender and breast packaging production supervisor.
She “immediately requested” a lateral transfer to the Tyson plant in Monett, Missouri, about 60 miles northeast of Noel but a similar 35-minute drive from her home in Neosho. The three cities, located in the western Ozark Mountains, belong to a region where the average annual income is $39,600 and 20% of jobs are in manufacturing.
“I’ve talked to people who didn’t move and they said, ‘Let me know if anything comes up there,’” Chinchilla said.
Tyson confirmed that David Handy, a pallet jack operator at the Noel plant who spoke to NBC News in August about the closure, was among 16% of the facility’s workforce that accepted internal transfers. Handy did not respond to recent requests for comment.
Other Tyson workers, like Ryan Coulter, 27, refused to move.
After working at the North Little Rock, Arkansas, plant, which closed in early October, in roles that included evaluating meat inventories, Coulter ruled out moving to the nearest Tyson active complex.
While the average price of a gallon of gas in Arkansas, $3.03, is about 22 cents cheaper than a year ago, you’d be driving much further.
“I would end up spending half my paycheck to get there,” he said. “That’s stressful. “I’m not going to prepare myself for failure.” (In September, 62% of Americans were living paycheck to paycheck, according to a report by the financial services company LendingClub, unchanged from a year ago, even as inflation has declined.)
Instead, Coulter said, he took a job at a nearby Value Foods grocery store. She declined to say how the salary compares.
While large employers like Amazon and Costco have expanded in the Little Rock metropolitan area, attracting young professionals and a variety of new jobs, Noel’s economic future appears more uncertain.
Mayor Terry Lance said he was working with the Harry S. Truman Coordinating Council, an economic development group in southwest Missouri, to find ways to move Noel beyond its former identity as a largely single-employer city.
In the weeks after the plant’s closure was announced, he said he had spoken to a pontoon manufacturer about the possibility of taking it over, but that company would employ no more than 350 workers at full capacity. Since then, Lance said a Texas company that converts sewage sludge into raw materials had signed a letter of intent to buy the complex, but “wasn’t convinced they could do it without a lot of odors” and wanted to avoid a “nightmare.” .
I truly believe we will come back better on the other side.
Lance said other ideas included opening an “industrial training facility” at the plant and steering Noel toward tourism, taking advantage of local attractions like the Elk River (Noel calls itself the “canoeing capital of the Ozarks”) and Bluff Cave. Dwellers on the outskirts of the city. .
He said he expects “two years of really tough times,” but was confident the community will persevere. “I want to urge all of our business owners to hang in there, because I truly believe we will come out better on the other side,” she said.
Some of the city’s character that Lance sees as an asset may already be declining.
“Each one has its own art, craft, food and music, and that’s what tourists like,” he said of the strong immigrant communities attracted to Noel during its decades as a poultry center. But as the Missouri Independent reported last week, many residents of Somalia and elsewhere in the United States under refugee programs have rushed out in search of new jobs, worried about their job prospects.
Fearful of the economic fallout in the region, political leaders have pressured Tyson to find new operators for some of the sites it is vacating.
Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., and Missouri Attorney General Andrew Bailey urged the company to find new operators for the Noel complex and one in Dexter, Mo., which closed Oct. 13, warning that failure to do so could violate antitrust laws. In September, Hawley said Tyson CEO Donnie King had assured him that the company was willing to sell “to any interested party, including a competitor.”
Tyson, which declined to comment further on the future of its shuttered plants, previously said it is “supporting the affected team members and producers” and is “open to all offers.”