By Leslie Berestein Rojas
Originally published Jul 12, 2023
One morning in late June, trucks rumbled loudly down Soto Street past the famous pig murals on the walls of the old Farmer John slaughterhouse, a painted pastoral wonderland of happy, frolicking pigs that’s long drawn tourists with a dark sense of humor.
Rina Chavarria, my guide this morning, pointed to a doorway in the mural. It was here, she said, that she and her former co-workers would line up on the sidewalk in the early hours of the morning, ready to do the backbreaking work of butchering hogs and processing the meat.
“This is where all the people came walking from the parking lot,” Chavarria said in Spanish, then laughed. “It was like a little line of ants here at 5 a.m.”
The Farmer John slaughterhouse in Vernon closed earlier this year after almost a century in the community. Blaming high operating costs in California, the brand’s parent company, Smithfield Foods, announced last year that it would move production out of state. The facility ceased production in February, leaving just a small crew to clean up until June.
Nearly a century of memories, for better or worse
Love it or hate it, the Farmer John plant was a fixture of L.A. life. The pig murals, the Dodger Dogs that it made until 2021, the smell that offended neighbors, and the regular vigils held outside by animal rights activists, who offered water to the pigs being trucked in.
Then there was its workforce, the size of a village — more than 2,000 people, according to the union that represented most Farmer John employees. Most of them were immigrants who lived in the surrounding Eastside neighborhoods. Latinos accounted for about 85% of staff.
Many were older, longtime employees, with limited English and specialized jobs skills that are difficult to transfer. Months after they were let go, these workers are struggling to start over, said Linda Nguyen with United Food and Commercial Workers Local 770, which represented most of the Farmer John employees.
“For many, this has been their only job since immigrating to the United States. Some have worked there several decades,” said Nguyen, executive director of the union’s Center for Worker Training and Leadership.
“The average age of the worker at Farmer John ranges between 52 and 60 years old,” Nguyen said, “so changing careers, having to potentially have some English and math literacy, is pretty daunting for folks. Many of the folks that are in the upper age range had plans to retire at the plant, you know? So this is really upending their lives.”
Life after Farmer John: ‘On the same boat’
Across the street from the plant, at a McDonald’s that once served those Dodger Dogs, Chavarria was joined by longtime Farmer John veteran Maria Borquez.
In the parking lot, the two women embraced and laughed — it was the first time they’d seen each other since the layoffs.
“We’re both sailing on the same boat, which is wobbling,” Chavarria cracked, eliciting a knowing chuckle from Borquez. Neither had found a job yet.
After nearly a decade at Farmer John, most recently as a supervisor in the loins department, Chavarria, 55, was a relative rookie next to Borquez, who spent 24 years at the plant.
Each day Borquez, who is 64, arrived before dawn to trim cuts of meat for export.
“The same, the same, the same, every day the same,” Borquez said in Spanish, describing how she’d arrive at 3:30 a.m. to sharpen knives and prepare for her shift.
The work was tough — cold temperatures, rapid assembly lines, repetitive work that strained their muscles and made their arms hurt. Chavarria eventually wound up with carpal-tunnel syndrome and needed surgery, she said. But for both women, the job represented security: a way to put down roots and raise families.
Chavarria, an immigrant from Guatemala, raised two kids while working at Farmer John, and became active in the union. Borquez, who is from Mexico, bought a home with her earnings, often taking overtime hours.
“I didn’t see the sun,” Borquez said, adding that while it was hard work, she loved it. “I felt at home here. Really for me, this was my first home, because I spent less time at home, I only went home to sleep.”
During the worst of the pandemic, as essential workers, both women showed up to work. Chavarria contracted COVID-19 twice and was sick for weeks. Borquez did not, so she kept coming in, even as news spread that some fellow employees were never coming back.
“Yes, some co-workers died,” Borquez said. “A co-worker that I knew from when I started, he died … it was a very ugly situation.”
By last year, the worst seemed to be over — then, employees learned that the plant would be shuttered. Borquez was let go in November.
“And now, what am I going to do?,” she remembers thinking. “I did not have, nor do I have, a plan to retire. I wanted to stay here.”
According to UFCW, Farmer John workers received $500 in severance for every year of employment; those who stayed after the plant closed received an extra $7,500 retention bonus.
As severance money has run out, obtaining unemployment has proven difficult for some, especially older, monolingual non-English speakers, said Juan Robles, the workforce development coordinator for Local 770.
“There’s still a lot of people struggling with basic things such as certifying for benefits,” said Robles, who has been helping laid-off Farmer John employees with their claims at the union’s nearby worker center in Huntington Park. “These folks have never applied for unemployment if they’ve been working for the company for 20 plus years.”
The company verified employment documentation, Robles said, meaning that workers hired had legal permission to work. But due to a lack of language and digital skills, and in some cases limited education, some workers have struggled with opening CalJOBS accounts, or with verifying their identity via id.me, the digital tool used by the state.
“So, because those documents were not submitted on time, that triggered an appeal process,” Robles said, leading to delays in receiving their checks.
Robles said Local 770 has hired additional staffers to help, and that the EDD has scheduled standing office hours for former Farmer John workers at its East Los Angeles location.
“They’re desperate to go back into the workforce,” he said.
Earlier this year, California’s Employment Development Department announced a $6.1 million grant set aside for services like career counseling, job fairs, training and other support for laid-off Farmer John workers.
UFCW was able to use some of this to host job fairs for them, said Linda Nguyen. But there have been bureaucratic delays, she said; for example, money that would provide additional services to laid-off workers at L.A.’s WorkSource centers has not yet been released by the city.
Training for new careers
Meanwhile, some former Farmer John workers are learning new skills through the hospitality workers’ union, UNITE HERE, which Local 770 has teamed up with for job training.
One recent afternoon, Farmer John veteran Benie Lacy watched intently as a chef instructor at the union-run Hospitality Training Kitchen in Koreatown taught a class of students how to cut fish.
“We’re studying to be prep cooks,” said Lacy, 55, who spent 25 years at the plant, “basically how they prep the food to be cooked and served, cutting techniques, recipes.”
It was a far cry from his Farmer John job processing ham and bacon. He said he misses a sense of community at Farmer John, especially.
“When you work around the same people for so many years, and all of a sudden they are gone, you feel like there has been a hole cut out of you,” Lacy said. “You don’t know how to fill it back up.”
But he’s plowing ahead, angling for a kitchen job, trying not to worry about whether he’ll be hired at his age because, “if you think about that,” he said, “you’ll just drive yourself to a nervous breakdown.”
Lacy has a mortgage to pay on the house he owns with his sister — and after two and a half decades in a slaughterhouse and meat processing plant, restaurant work doesn’t sound half bad.
“It’s fun here,” he said, motioning around the busy teaching kitchen. “I like this place.”
Making tamales to make ends meet
Maria Borquez and Rina Chavarria also hope to find jobs soon.
Borquez took the same kitchen training class in the spring, along with her sister, who also worked at Farmer John. Her sister, who is 10 years younger, soon found work in a university cafeteria.
But Borquez was still waiting, hoping the union would connect her with an employer. She knows others in the same situation.
“We’re waiting — let’s hope so,” she said.
As Borquez walked back to her car, she took another look at the old building, its pig murals darkened from years of truck exhaust. Her eyes watered up a little. She said it was the first time she’d come here since she was laid off; until now, she’d been reluctant to drive by.
“The last day of work, I cried,” Borquez said. “I’m not ashamed to say it.”
Then she excused herself to hurry home. She had plans to make tamales that afternoon — to sell, she said, because there were bills to pay.
This report is reprinted with permission from Southern California Public Radio. © 2023 Southern California Public Radio. All rights reserved.