Panel discusses economic, social fallout of losing largest local employer

Dr. Tom Burkgren, standing center, moderates the PerryNext panel Wednesday, which includes panelists, from left, Central Iowa Workforce Development Executive Director Eric Kress, Iowa Workforce Development Business Engagement Consultant Chad Pierce, Iowa Economic Development Authority Chief Operating Officer and Deputy Director Rick Peterson, Dallas County Hospital Care Coordinator Jocelyn Monzon, Perry City Administrator Sven Peterson and Perry Mayor Dirk Cavanaugh.

With the closure of Perry’s Tyson Fresh Meats plant now only days away, the PerryNext coalition of city, county and state officials and local business and community leaders hosted an informative panel discussion Wednesday at La Poste for about 50 attendees.

The event opened with remarks from Rachel Wacker, executive director of the Greater Dallas County Development Alliance and member of PerryNext. Perry City Administrator Sven Peterson then briefly described the work of PerryNext, calling it “the trusted resource for important information regarding the community, business-attraction efforts, media responses, workforce resources and social issues.”

The hourlong discussion was moderated by Dr. Tom Burkgren of Perry, longtime executive director of the American Association of Swine Veterinarians and an expert in agricultural economics and community development.

Joining Burkgren on the panel were Peterson, Perry Mayor Dirk Cavanaugh, Dallas County Hospital (DCH) Care Coordinator Jocelyn Monzon, Central Iowa Workforce Development Board (CIWDB) Executive Director Eric Kress, Iowa Workforce Development (IWD) Business Engagement Consultant Chad Pierce and Iowa Economic Development Authority (IEDA) Chief Operating Officer and Deputy Director Rick Peterson.

Burkgren began by describing the current market trends in the pork industry and then turned to some larger economic forces that are bringing about the closure of the Perry packing plant.

“The pork industry thrives on efficiency, and that’s especially true about the packing industry,” he said. “Their margins are very slim.”

Burkgren said hog producers and the packing industry are both coming off one of their worst years ever in 2023, with producers losing an average of $35 a head. Along with today’s market conditions, long-term trends within the industry have also played a part in the closure, he said.

“I don’t fault Tyson for making the economic decision to close the plant,” he said. “It does make economic sense for them to close this plant from an efficiency standpoint. Since about 2016, there’s been a real movement within the packing industry to move to double-shift plants, to make plants more efficient.”

Due to the age of the Perry plant, the physical limits of its two-story infrastructure and the difficulty of staffing a double shift, Tyson has not been able to double shift in Perry, he said.

“I don’t know, inside of Tyson, what the discussion was,” Burkgren said, “but it probably came down to, Do we close Perry, or do we close Columbus Junction? They chose Perry.”

As Burkgren’s analysis reminded listeners, Tyson Foods Inc. is a corporation with one duty: to maximize profits. It should not be mistaken for a social-service agency with a mission to provide living wages in sustainable communities. To criticize a corporation’s actions on grounds other than profit seeking is to mistake its nature and purpose as a corporation.

A notable feature of Tyson’s situation in Perry is the very docile and tractable workforce it faces and the complete absence of union power. Iowa is a right-to-work state, and Tyson Foods Inc. has a right to work its profit-seeking will without opposition from anyone but its corporate competitors.

By contrast to this corporate ethos, the nonprofit Dallas County Hospital does serve a social purpose in fostering the health of its population, including the social determinants of health. That is why DCH Care Coordinator Jocelyn Monzon told the panel that the hospital is continuing its ongoing mission of care during the transition at the Tyson plant.

“The providers and health care team share the responsibility of getting accessible care to all our residents,” Monzon said. “We are gathering our services that we already have in place and are just trying to strive through.”

She said many Tyson workers have questions and concerns about their health insurance coverage as they navigate this job loss or approach retirement. Along with medical care in the narrow sense, DCH also provides referrals for food and housing assistance, mental health care and similar needs.

Apart from Monzon’s representation of DCH’s values, the panel’s center of gravity plainly centered on economic and job-related matters, and the IEDA’s Peterson noted the “tremendous amount of horsepower” going into the PerryNext effort of helping workers and the city of Perry through this mass-layoff event.

Pierce with the IWD and Kress with the CIWDB detailed their rapid responses to the March announcement of the plant closure and the many ways they are helping to connect job seekers with resources — sometimes in spite of language barriers — and also helping employers that are seeking new laborers.

With about 750 of the 1,300 Tyson Fresh Meats workers living in Perry and another 500 with jobs directly dependent on the factory — and with some 300 students in the Perry school system living in households linked to a Tyson job — the economic dislocation is huge for the town, and the urgency of finding replacement jobs is equally huge.

Sven Peterson said the Tyson corporate leadership has been “very open with us, with good lines of communication,” and Burkgren said the Perry plant “does have value,” and “the next best use for this is a packing plant,” but a buyer has yet to be found.

“Will Tyson sell to a competitor?” he asked. “I hope the answer is yes.”

An audience member asked what things ordinary people in Perry can do to help with the situation.

“One thing you can do is try to be patient,” said Cavanaugh. “You might not see a lot of action, but there are a lot of things going on. Until we get somebody in and a new employer, we can’t really announce too much, but there are a lot of activities going on to find people and working with them to get here. So your patience is appreciated.”

Burkgren said simply keeping oneself informed with accurate information is important because “there’s really a lot of rumors and questions that no one’s doing anything, but as you can see with these panelists who have been involved right from the start, with Mayor Cavanaugh, with Sven Peterson and Rachel Wacker, a lot of people have been doing a lot of things.”

“Situations like this really help the community come together,” Sven Peterson said. “It’s going to be a couple of years that we’re working through this, but I think really just sticking together and taking care of our people is the best thing.”

The PerryNext website remains available with current information. The PerryNext group is composed of Perry City Hall leaders and representatives from Perry Economic Development Inc., Perry Area Chamber of Commerce, Perry Community School District, DMACC Perry VanKirk Career Academy and DMACC Business Resources, Dallas County Hospital, Greater Dallas County Development Alliance, Greater Des Moines Partnership, Iowa Economic Development Authority, Iowa Workforce Development, Central Iowa Local Workforce Development Board, Alliant Energy, Mid-American Energy and others.


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