Holly Poultry expands in Baltimore, adding jobs for those who can 'cut it'

It's a finger-numbing 45 degrees inside the sprawling plant not far from Carroll Park in West Baltimore, but Debbie Green easily slices chicken into perfect one-ounce portions.

She checks her work with a scale, though she no longer needs to after 27 years on the job at Holly Poultry Inc.

"Not everyone can cut it," said Green, a 68-year-old great-great grandmother from North Baltimore whose daughter also works at the plant. "You have to enjoy the work. These are good jobs for the city that sure does need it."

The Baltimore-based chicken processor, which already employs nearly 250 people, plans to hire 150 more in the next few years as it increases volume to meet a growing demand for poultry.

The family owned-company has been expanding since Mike Fine bought it in 1990, though he's been so low-key about it that he believes few around the city even know the manufacturer is there.

He recently handed over control to his son Zach, who just oversaw the construction of the 35,000-square-foot processing plant where the new workers will go and where city leaders will gather Wednesday to celebrate the expansion and the company's contribution to the city's economy.

Amid the growth, the constant, the Fines said, is their push to hire workers who live in Baltimore.

The move has won praise from city leaders and community groups in Baltimore, where the unemployment rate of 6.1 percent is higher than the state rate of 4.3 percent.

"Manufacturing jobs are incredibly important to the city as they have low barriers to entry and generally require nothing more than a willingness to learn a new skill," said William H. Cole, president and CEO of the Baltimore Development Corp., which gave Holly a $400,000 low-interest loan for equipment and helped the company navigate the permitting process.

"These are sustainable jobs with upward mobility that will hopefully lead to a family-sustaining wage," he said. "Holly Poultry provides jobs for some who need a second chance and serves as an important employment anchor in Southwest Baltimore."

Bernard C. "Jack" Young, president of the Baltimore City Council, put it more simply.

"People who don't have a job will have a job," he said. "And the best thing is that the jobs start at above minimum wage and come with health care."

Starting salaries are $9.50 an hour, above the minimum wage of $8.75. Workers can also earn a quick succession of raises and discounts on products. Everyone is provided health care and bus fare to get to work.

Holly's processing operation works as something of a middle man, "further processing" whole chickens supplied by Perdue Farms and other larger growers and distributed through companies such as Saval and Sysco to food outlets from New York to Richmond, Va. Holly workers debone, portion and marinate the chicken.

"The chicken is ready to go right onto a rotisserie at Royal Farms or breaded and dropped in the deep fryer or on a grill at a restaurant," said Zach Fine.

He declined to disclose Holly Poultry's sales, but said it now produces about 15-20 truckloads of chicken from the processing plant a week, each holding 40,000 pounds of chicken. That's about double the truckloads from two or three years ago, he said. At full capacity, the expanded facility could produce up to 80 truckloads a week.

Fine said the company is working to meet growing demand. The National Chicken Council, using U.S. Department of Agriculture data, estimates that Americans will each consume 91.6 pounds of chicken this year, up from 28 pounds in 1960. That's well over the 57.1 pounds of beef and 50.8 pounds of pork people are projected to eat this year.

Fine said the company works to create a warm environment for employees, despite the cool temperatures, working in breaks in spaces inside and outside the plant and allowing chatter at work stations. To physically stay warm, employees can wear winter caps under their hair nets and layers under their white coats. Everyone is in boots and gloves.

Jose Vasquez, on the job as a bilingual supervisor for four years, said as a native of Buffalo, N.Y., he's used to the cold. He said he can usually tell in the first few days if new workers are going to make it, though everyone gets two weeks of training.

He said he enjoys seeing new workers develop their cutting skills and become efficient at removing bird parts on his line — the belt can move about 40 chickens a minute. To check their work, Vasquez inspects the leftover bones.

"It's tough work," he said. "But it's always a challenge."

Vasquez works to make sure language isn't a barrier for employees, who include immigrants and refugees. Holly works with several community groups to hire workers who want a job but have few skills or ability to line up work.

Some come from the correctional system and have difficulty getting anyone to consider them, even if they have an education or skills training, said Margaret Chippendale, warden at the Maryland Correctional Institution for Women in Jessup. Her staff is working to place ex-offenders and women on work release at the plant.

The women need jobs, in addition to a place to live and community and family support when they leave prison, she said. That's for income but also for self esteem. To that end, the institution teaches the women about having a good attitude, going to work on time and looking professional, and officials take them to job interviews.

"It's a tough job, it's cold," Chippendale said about Holly. "But the women absolutely want this. ... A job gives them something to look forward to. It gives them a chance."

Ruben Chandrasekar, executive director in Baltimore for the International Rescue Committee, said the refugees he sends to Holly also want the job. He currently has 10 clients there.

"The work is demanding and perhaps it's not the first option for many Americans born here in Baltimore," he said. "But for refugees and immigrants who come here to rebuild their lives, they gladly take this work. We try and match people eager to work with employers willing to give them a second chance, and we think it's good for their bottom line too."

The group expects to resettle about 600 people this federal fiscal year, 400 of them adults. So, about those new jobs at Holly, "We'll be in line."

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