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KLN overseas workers are arriving

Marie Nitke/FOCUS About half of the total 60 overseas workers KLN has hired arrived in Wadena last Monday. The workers will work the second and third shifts at Barrel O’ Fun in Perham through the end of this year. This type of work exchange program is new to all involved. It’s expected to help relieve a worker shortage at Barrel O’ Fun, and provides an opportunity for foreign workers to travel to the U.S., get to know people from other cultures, and earn money for themselves and their families back home.

KLN Family Brands’ workers from abroad began punching the clock last week.

A group of 33 temporary foreign workers arrived in the United States last Monday. Two days later, they were welcomed by their Perham-based employer and others in an informal outdoor ceremony in Wadena, where they’ll be residing while they’re here.

Another 27 workers are expected to arrive by the end of July.

The workers are from all over the world, including Ukraine, Mexico, Haiti, Brazil and other countries. Through a program called Global Workforce, they will be working at KLN-owned Barrel O’ Fun Snack foods in Perham, through the end of this year.

Some of them, such as Sergiu Ivanov, have worked in the United States before.

Ivanov is from Moldova, an Eastern European country bordered by Romania and Ukraine.

In an interview at the welcome ceremony, Ivanov – a cheerful man who said everything with a smile on his face – explained that he did some work in the U.S. on a temporary visa two years ago. He spent most of his time in Iowa, but also spent about a month in Minnesota, and is now happy to be back in the area.

“I like the friendly openness of people in the Midwest,” he said. “That motivated me to come back.”

Ivanov views the experience as both a practical and cultural one, but mostly the latter. The work program offers him the opportunity to meet people from other countries, brush up on his English – at home, he speaks Romanian – and earn some money to support himself.

“You get to touch other cultures,” he said. “It’s an exchange of experience.”

For others, such as three workers from Mexico City, the cultural experience is important, but the work is even more so. Victor Michua, Adrian Michua and Uriel Vargas Hidalgo all said they were participating in the work program primarily to support their families back home.

“In Mexico, we have too much work for too little money,” said Victor Michua. “We’re here to have a better future for our family.”

“We’re not going to bother anybody,” he added. “We’re nice people. We’re glad to be here, and we like to make friends, too.”

The group – there will be 60 total, once everyone has arrived – has had their housing and transportation to and from work arranged by Global Workforce. Due to a housing shortage in Perham, the workers are staying at the Eastwood Inn in Wadena. They are bussed to their shifts at Barrel O’ Fun.

The situation is a win-win for the workers and the company, offering the workers employment and a cultural experience, while the company gets some temporary relief from an ongoing worker shortage.

Barrel O’ Fun had been conducting a regional and national employment search for months, with little luck, before the company decided to test out the Global Workforce program. Without the foreign workers, the company’s permanent employees were having to pick up more shifts, and Barrel O’ Fun was starting to have to shut down some machines and turn away business.

Global Workforce, which is based in Fergus Falls and has 22 offices all over the world, has decades of experience arranging cultural exchanges, and labor exchanges in the agricultural industry, but this is the first time the program has worked with a commercial business.

If all goes well, program leaders said, KLN may do it again next year, and Global Workforce will likely partner with additional companies in the area to help meet more temporary work needs in the future.

The workers in the KLN group are here on 10-month work visas, explained Global Workforce’s Ben Schierer. They are eligible to return to the U.S. again next year for more seasonal work, if a need is shown.

“We’re hearing about worker shortages everywhere,” Schierer said. “We’re hoping this‘ll show that this model works.”

Those visas were effective in March, but holdups at the Department of Labor and Homeland Security delayed the arrival of the workers until now.

“We’re very happy and very pleased that they’re here,” said Nancy Belka, human resources director at KLN. “It’s going to help us out tremendously.”

Belka and shift supervisors from Barrel O’ Fun were on hand at the welcome ceremony to introduce themselves and talk about the company and the workers’ roles within it.

The workers are stationed on the Barrel O’ Fun snack lines in the evenings and overnight. As of the welcome last Wednesday, they had not yet seen Perham. They were scheduled for an orientation at Barrel O’ Fun the following day, and started work immediately.

Global Workforce was planning some social outings for the workers while they’re here, such as a fishing trip, but nothing was finalized at the time of the ceremony. Providing cultural opportunities for the workers, however, is part of what Global Workforce does.

“We enjoy watching people get integrated into communities,” said Greg Smedsrud, a managing partner at Global Workforce.

Perham Mayor Tim Meehl and Economic Development Authority Director Chuck Johnson were also at the welcome ceremony, to greet the workers and tell them a little bit about Perham.