SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (AP) — The new owner of a northeast Iowa kosher slaughterhouse said Tuesday he will hire local residents and use a federal verification system to ensure his employees are in the U.S. legally.
Hershey Friedman bought the Postville plant that was once the nation's largest kosher slaughterhouse in July, more than a year after a massive immigration raid. The plant had been owned by Agriprocessors, Inc., which filed for bankruptcy months after the raid.
The first of two trials for the plant's former top manager began Tuesday.
In one of his first interviews since buying the company, Friedman told The Associated Press he'll use the government's E-Verify system for new hires and will pay new workers from Postville and the surrounding area more than minimum wage. Agriprocessors, where 389 illegal immigrants were arrested by federal agents, didn't use E-Verify.
"You have to do your best to get the local community first," said Friedman, who was born and raised in Montreal. If the plant can't find a local work force, "Then I'll have to worry about it afterward."
Friedman formed a new company, called Agri Star Meat and Poultry LLC, to buy the Iowa plant. He said he plans to pay at least $1 to $1.50 per hour more than minimum wage for the lowest entry-level positions. Iowa's minimum wage is $7.25 per hour, but $6.35 per hour for the first 90 days of employment.
"I don't want to start at minimum wage," Friedman said. "That's not where our goal is. Anybody can go to McDonald's for minimum wage. We want better than that."
Agriprocessors and its top manager at the plant, Sholom Rubashkin, have been accused of hiring illegal immigrants, violating child labor laws and abusing workers. Rubashkin faces 163 charges in two trials. A trial dealing with 91 financial charges began Tuesday in Sioux Falls, S.D., and a trial concerning 72 immigration charges will follow. His lawyer has said Rubashkin denies all the charges.
Friedman said he wants the plant to have a good reputation.
"We want to give fair salaries, fair benefits, we want to treat them fairly and we want in return for them to treat us fairly," he said.
Friedman described himself as a turnaround specialist who will operate a leaner plant and avoid his predecessor's mistakes. Friedman also is CEO of Polystar Group, which has interests in plastics and packaging operations in the U.S. and Canada.
"The former ownership was pushing the plant beyond its true capacity," Friedman said. "The quality goes down when you over-push the capacity of a plant. It's the physical quality of the meat that goes out on the market. When you're over-pushing it, you're not cutting it properly, you're not packaging it properly, you're just pushing out product and you're not careful."
Friedman said he will modernize the plant and eventually employ 750 to 800 people. The plant once employed about 1,000, but was down to about 325 workers when Friedman bought it. He has since hired an additional 60 people.
There hasn't been a shortage of kosher meat, but the price has jumped about 15 percent nationwide since the Agriprocessors raid, said Menachem Lubinsky, who monitors the kosher market in his industry newsletter and once acted as a spokesman for Agriprocessors after the raid. In some places, kosher meat prices have nearly doubled.
Agriprocessors "lowballed" the competition by offering significantly lower prices for kosher meat, Lubinsky said.
It "did so both for the competitive advantage and as a religious imperative to get kosher meat to as many people as possible," Lubinsky said. "It's not clear yet what model (Friedman) will follow."
Friedman rejected the assertion that Agriprocessors set unfairly lower prices, saying the company did a service by offering affordable kosher meat to the Jewish community.
"They didn't let the situation get abused, and that was one of their big achievements in the Jewish kosher community," Friedman said. "Kosher meat was available and affordable. We plan on doing the same exact same thing. We're not out to gouge the Jewish community, we're out there to make sure everybody has affordable kosher meat throughout the United States."