* The request for deferred action could open a pathway for former employees to remain in the U.S. and continue working.
* Minnesota requested the deferred action because it needs the workers to conduct an investigation into possible workplace abuses at HyLife.
* HyLife workers on temporary visas faced limited options to remain in the U.S. after the plant closed.
MINNEAPOLIS — The Minnesota Department of Labor and Industry is investigating possible wage theft at HyLife Foods, a pork processing plant in Windom, Minnesota, that closed permanently and laid off its 1,000-person workforce June 2.
The investigation opens up a path to legal work authorization and protection from deportation for up to approximately 500 foreign workers who were employed at HyLife though temporary visas.
The Minnesota DLI sent a letter to the Department of Homeland Security on June 6 informing the agency of its investigation into unpaid wages at HyLife and requesting deferred action for all workers who were employed at the plant from May 8, 2021, until the plant’s closure this month.
The letter cites a Biden-administration initiative to provide deferred action — temporary protection from deportation — and work permits to people who were victims of, or witnesses to, violations of labor law.
The Minnesota DLI requested that the DHS provide deferred action and employment authorization for at least two years for all of the H-2B workers employed at HyLife over the period of the agency’s investigation.
Some workers have already begun the process of applying for work permits and deferred action.
“DLI believes that prosecutorial discretion and issuance of an (employment authorization document) would help to ensure that impacted workers can fully and freely participate in DLI’s investigative processes and, in turn, would help DLI to successfully pursue and obtain appropriate remedies in this matter,” the letter states.
Investigate Midwest obtained a copy of the June 6 letter from a former HyLife employee, who requested anonymity for fear of jeopardizing his immigration status.
In response to questions about the letter and investigation, Minnesota DLI spokesperson James Honerman told Investigate Midwest the agency has “no public data responsive to your request.”
HyLife did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
On Oct. 12, 2021, Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas published a memorandum instructing the agency to assist the Department of Labor in its investigations by considering requests for deferred action on a “case-by-case basis.”
The June 6 letter from Minnesota DLI is called a “statement of interest” and explains how the DHS could assist the Minnesota DLI in its investigation by allowing former HyLife employees to stay in the country.
People seeking deferred action and work authorization due to violations of labor law must submit a copy of the statement of interest to U.S. Customs and Immigration Services alongside other required documents and forms.
DHS did not respond to requests for comment, including a question about whether the agency had officially granted the Minnesota DLI’s request for deferred action and work authorization.
The DHS website, however, instructs labor agencies not to distribute statements of interest until after the DHS has confirmed acceptance.
When the plant closed in early June, hundreds of workers’ visas were terminated earlier than anticipated. HyLife had 10 days to return the workers, most of whom are from Mexico and the Philippines, to their home countries.
Facing limited options to continue living in the U.S. legally, some former HyLife employees opted to return to their home countries while others stayed in the U.S. to explore other legal options.
Deferred action temporarily protects individuals from deportation but does not provide “lawful status,” according to DHS. In order to become legal residents of the U.S., former HyLife workers would have to pursue other visa options, such as asylum or sponsorship by a family member.
The former HyLife employee who provided the DLI letter to Investigate Midwest said he submitted paperwork Saturday to obtain a work permit and deferred action and is awaiting a response from DHS.
Work authorization would allow him to continue sending money to his wife and children in his home country, he said. As he waits for the authorization, he is staying with a relative and unable to work.
“There is a lot of opportunity here in the United States,” the former HyLife employee said. “Many of us consider the United States a dream country because in our country it’s very hard to find a basic job to support the needs of your family.”
He added that unemployment and the plant closure has been extremely emotional and difficult for the community of H-2B workers, but that the experience has strengthened his faith in God and his friendships with other workers.
HyLife, based in Manitoba, Canada, filed for bankruptcy on April 27. Charoen Pokphand Group, a Thai holding company, has held a majority stake in HyLife since 2019.
Premium Iowa Pork purchased the plant for $14 million in the aftermath of the bankruptcy but opted not to retain the workforce.
In 2022, HyLife employed more workers on H-2B visas than any other meatpacking plant in the country.
Citations & References:
Statement of Interest from the Minnesota Department of Labor and Industry to Department of Homeland Security. June 6, 2023.
Interview with former HyLife worker. June 12, 2023.
“DHS Support of the Enforcement of Labor and Employment Laws.” Department of Homeland Security.
“Worksite Enforcement: The Strategy to Protect the American Labor Market, the Conditions of the American Worksite, and the Dignity of the Individual” from Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Majorkas. Oct. 12, 2021
“In bankruptcy’s wake, a Minnesota meatpacking plant’s visa workers face an uncertain future.” Investigate Midwest. May 12, 2023.
“Judge approves sale of HyLife hog plant in Windom to Iowa pork producer.” Star Tribune. June 9, 2023.
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