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How a SD turkey processing plant saw opportunity in the exodus from Puerto Rico

New employees, including Gretchen Velez, left, 21, participate in a stretching exercise during orientation at Dakota Provisions in Huron, South Dakota, in December. All photos: Washington Post / Bonnie Jo Mount

HURON, S.D. - The airport terminal doors slid open and out came 22 people from Puerto Rico, walking a few weeks ago into the whipping South Dakota wind, not quite ready for what was ahead. One person still wore shorts. Another zipped up a hoodie. The group climbed into three waiting vans.

"You guys good?" asked one of the drivers who would be taking them to their new home. "Does anybody speak English?"

"No," one person said, and the driver let the van go silent before turning up some country music.

Through the windows, there were miles of emptiness, and Gretchen Velez, 21, looked at the others in the van and was quiet. She'd started the day on an island that was desperately short on electricity and clean water and jobs because of Hurricane Maria. Now, 10 hours later, she was in South Dakota - a place she knew almost nothing about, other than what a job recruiter had told her, that he had a position for her at a turkey processing plant in a rural town nearly 3,000 miles away.

Velez had never left Puerto Rico, but after years of economic crisis and then a natural disaster, almost everybody she knew was wondering whether they had any choice but to go. By some counts, nearly 2,000 Puerto Ricans were leaving every day, and in that exodus, some mainland U.S. companies were starting to see an opportunity of their own - a new answer in their ever-evolving struggle to find workers who would perform lower-rung American jobs. "Off to my new life," Velez had told her mother that morning, but now she was wondering: What am I doing here? Is this the right thing?

Another way to ask it: How does someone arrive at such a place in the U.S. workforce? When Velez and the others arrived in Huron after a two-hour ride from the airport, it was after midnight, and on the horizon were the lights of a turkey plant called Dakota Provisions. The temperature had dipped into the 30s, and earlier in the day, fierce wind gusts had carried thousands of white turkey feathers from the plant, scattering them for several miles, onto farmland and road medians, and onto the grounds of a motel where the vans now pulled up. The Puerto Ricans unloaded their luggage, and a Spanish-speaking human-resources employee from the turkey plant passed out keys and showed them to their rooms.

The employee guided Velez and her brother Carlos, along with a friend who had also come, to a room on the second floor. They stepped inside and looked around. The lights worked. So did the TV. Warm water came out of the bathroom faucet.

"Everything OK?" the employee asked, and when Velez said "Yes," he said, "Have a good night."

Velez pushed her suitcases into the corner and then tried to make the room feel like home, walking over to the thermostat and turning the heat to high.

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Employees work in a refrigerated environment processing turkeys at Dakota Provisions in Huron, S.D.

Ten weeks earlier, Velez had been a college student with a part-time job and no plans to leave Puerto Rico. But then the hurricane hit, bringing with it 30 inches of rain and 120 mph winds, and when it was over she had knee-high water in her house and no idea what to do. She had lost her job; the building where she'd worked was flooded. Her college classes were canceled. The train she used to commute wasn't running. As the weeks passed, Velez saw only deeper evidence of a place falling apart: long lines for bottled water; empty grocery shelves; waits at Kmart where residents could charge electronics. To catch phone service, Velez walked toward a cell tower until she had enough of a connection to see the goodbye notes friends were posting on Facebook as they left the island. And then, one day, a different kind of message popped up, posted by her cousin, about an opportunity in South Dakota at a turkey plant where he worked. "Take advantage!" he wrote.

The turkey plant had opened 12 years earlier and since then had grown into one of the largest employers in South Dakota, with more than a thousand workers. It had also transformed the character of Huron: The starting-level jobs - breast-pullers, carcass-loaders, bird-hangers - rarely attracted anyone from the local workforce, so instead the plant filled with people from all over the world. Soon, a town that had been 97 percent white had four Asian grocery stores and a school district where half the students were learning English as a second language, and at the center of it was a plant in constant need of workers - people who would be ready every morning as trucks dropped off 19,000 live turkeys that would be killed, deboned, sectioned and sliced, and wrapped for restaurants and grocery stores.

For a year, the company had tried recruiting in Puerto Rico, where the economy over a decade had already contracted 10 percent. But then came the hurricane, and in the turkey plant's HR office, one of the recruiting managers, Oscar Luque, saw news footage of what looked to him like a "Third World country." He asked Puerto Ricans already at the plant to spread the word that he was coming. He flew to the island with 48 drug-test kits, somehow found a vacant hotel room in San Juan, and waited to see who would show up.

Over the next week, with workers from the Federal Emergency Management Agency still directing traffic, 80 people came from across the island to meet with him. Luque told them about the work - that it was repetitive, physical, "not always pretty." He told them about the wages - $10.00 per hour, jumping soon after to $12 or $13. He said the company would fly them to South Dakota and slowly deduct the flight costs out of their paychecks. He described the jobs available.

"A good opportunity," Luque called it, and he offered the job to welders and bartenders and security guards, and then to Velez, who said she would come, and then sold her iPod and a video game console to gather spending cash for the trip.

The morning after she arrived in South Dakota, she opened the motel room curtains and looked outside. Just beyond the parking lot was a baseball field, a restaurant called The Plains and a 28-foot-tall statue of a pheasant, the region's favorite hunting target. She put on three layers, walked outside and video-chatted with her boyfriend back in Puerto Rico, holding up her phone to show him the view.

"Is that a duck?" he asked when Velez walked up to the bird.

"I don't think so," she said, and when they talked again the next day she told him that Huron was very cold and quiet, that it was flat, that it had nice houses and also a Salvation Army, where she'd picked up a red winter coat, one that she planned to wear during her shifts inside the plant.

As her first day of work approached, she had so many questions about how life inside the plant would feel. How would the turkeys look? Would she see blood? Could she handle the cold? During two days of orientation - mostly instructions on safety and health - she didn't once see the work area. It was only on the eve of her first shift, while she was being fitted for rubber boots, that a veteran Puerto Rican employee walked out of the work area and into the break room. He was tall, with a neck tattoo and skinny sideburns, and quickly drew a crowd around him.

"First two weeks, you'll hurt," he said. "But you're coming from Puerto Rico. Put your heart into it. This is your life."

Gretchen Velez makes her first-ever snow angel in the motel's parking lot.

- - -

The next morning, there was a fresh layer of snow on the ground. At the plant, 19,900 turkeys arrived in trucks and 22 workers clocked in for the first time.

"I'm a little nervous," her brother said.

"I'm OK," Velez said.

She'd been assigned to the deboning room, one of about 185 workers standing shoulder to shoulder. She buttoned a white smock over her red jacket, pulled on her rubber boots and walked through two swinging doors, entering a narrow, frigid hallway that led to her work area. In the hallway, she stopped by a booth that provided her the rest of her equipment, and she pulled it on layer by layer - a vinyl apron, a hairnet, protection for her ears and eyes, a pair of cotton gloves, and over that a pair of rubber gloves, and on her right hand a mesh steel glove for protection against cuts.

"All right, let's go," a supervisor said, and he led her down the hallway and into a room with high ceilings, bright lights, silver metal surfaces and a temperature set at 36 to 38 degrees.

This was her first time inside the plant. Her eyes darted. To her right, she saw plucked and headless turkeys arriving into the room on a chute, where workers picked them up and hooked them by their feet to a conveyor belt. She saw the turkeys then move into deeper recesses of the room, where people with knives hacked and disassembled them, separating drumsticks and wings, scapulas and wishbones. Finally, plump pieces of breast meat arrived on conveyors at a table of 16 workers, who used knives and meat hooks to trim a piece every four or five seconds.

Everywhere she looked, she saw people from somewhere else. Only a handful seemed to be local. The people hanging the birds were from Myanmar, also known as Burma. Some of the people trimming the breasts were from Puerto Rico. Deeper in the factory, cutting skin, removing organs, there were people from Cuba and Guatemala and Vietnam. More than a dozen were from Chuuk, an island chain in Micronesia.

A supervisor, from Haiti, led Velez to her station, on what was called the wing line. "Thank you!" Velez said, shouting to him over the noise, and then another worker, from Puerto Rico, pulled Velez aside and showed her the motion she would make hundreds of times for the rest of the day: picking up a turkey wing from a trough in front of her. Setting it on a white cutting surface. Using a knife, shaped like a small ice-cream scooper, to pull the wing meat away from the bone and then dropping it onto a conveyor belt.

"Try it," the other worker said, and Velez settled in.

On her first attempt, she fumbled with the knife and missed half the meat. Her second attempt was better, and same with her third. But on her fourth, she dragged the knife into the bone and got stuck. Her fifth, she fought to yank away the skin. The wings were massive and slippery, she thought; she couldn't figure out how best to hold them. She was a lefty, using a knife designed for righties.

She was on the line with five other workers, and no matter how fast they cut, they couldn't keep up. Every few minutes, somebody came by with a shovel and dumped more wings into the trough. The trough was never empty, and there was no time to look elsewhere. Velez kept her head down, eyes on the knife and the cutting space and the wings, grabbing and cutting, grabbing and cutting. She handled a wing every 20 seconds, and then every 18. Flecks of turkey fat flew onto her apron and got matted into her steel glove.

Then, the cold set in. Somehow, she would later say, it seemed to build and build, sinking into her feet and hands, and impossible to shake away. The meat was cold. The knife was cold. Even the ground felt cold, and after hours of cutting, Velez walked gingerly into the break room. "It hurts a little," she told a more experienced worker, who said, "Oh, yeah, it does."

She returned to the line. The wings kept coming. She trimmed a wing in 25 seconds, then 22 seconds, then 29. The muscles in her hands kept tightening, and between cuts she bent back her fingers on the table. She adjusted her gloves. She sharpened her knife. She sharpened her knife again.

With 15 minutes to go, she found a last wind. She shook her hands and picked up the wings as quickly as she could - 13 seconds, 15 seconds - until another worker looked at the clock and said the day was almost over. Velez cut the meat from one more wing and dropped it onto the belt.

Other workers guided her out of the deboning room, into a cleanup area where she washed bits of turkey flesh and skin from her boots, her rubber gloves, her apron. She said she was exhausted. She said the muscles in her lower legs hurt from standing. She said the muscles in her hand hurt from cutting. She tried to make a fist and couldn't. "I'm just so tired," she said.

She walked slowly toward the turkey plant's exit and, while waiting for the other workers to filter out, sat in a chair and dropped her head on a table. Her first day as a worker in South Dakota was over. The next morning, her alarm would ring at 5 a.m.

"I need to get some sleep," she said, but for now, all she wanted to do was get a ride back to the motel. She wanted to get back to Puerto Rico eventually, but here, for her, was opportunity - the chance to stand under a hot shower for as long as it took to take away the chill of the day.

Author Information: Chico Harlan is an enterprise reporter and part of The Post's financial team.