MANCHESTER — When Christian Arroyo and Hakim James stepped of a plane and arrived in Iowa at the end of January, it was 80 degrees colder than where they had been just a few hours earlier.
They were two of a handful of new employees the Exide Technologies plant in Manchester has recruited from Puerto Rico — the U.S. territory in the Caribbean that was struck by two hurricanes in 2017.
Exide, a company that makes car batteries and related technology, has locations around the world and is headquartered in Milton, Ga.
Manchester plant manager Bill Delaney said the Iowa plant has about 300 hourly employees and about 40 office staff. But the plant also has many vacancies it struggles to fill.
“If you look at unemployment, with the economy as hot as it is, in Delaware County it’s very low,” he said. “We have been having a difficult time incorporating new employees into the plant.”
He said they’ve tried to recruit employees with job fairs in cities around the country with higher unemployment rates. But that hasn’t been enough.
“If we could get employees from this area, we would. We just can’t get them,” he said.
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One place they hadn’t tried recruiting before was Puerto Rico. The island’s residents are American citizens, which eliminated the costly, time-consuming and uncertain process of applying for visas for workers that would have been necessary if the plant wanted to recruit from places like Mexico.
So, plant officials posted the job openings they had in Puerto Rico, then sent staff to the island to interview candidates. Eight of those candidates ended up coming to Iowa.
“Instead of them coming to us, we went and got them,” human resources manager Marty Langel said.
Arroyo heard about the opportunity from his brother, who still is unemployed in Puerto Rico.
“Things back in Puerto Rico weren’t looking good. We all have family who depend on us,” Arroyo said.
He previously worked at a rum distillery and said it was a good job, but after Hurricane Maria he couldn’t return for two months because the roof of the building where he worked had blown off.
Luckily, he had money saved to get his family through, but he decided he wanted to leave. His house was without electricity for three months, and he would have to stand on the side of a highway to find a cellphone signal. Crime also increased he said, as unemployment climbed and some people became more desperate.
He also wonders if, with climate change, another equally devastating storm will hit his home again sooner rather than later.
“We as a family didn’t feel safe on the streets,” he said. “To give my family what they deserve, I shouldn’t stay there.”
After the island was hit by Hurricanes Irma and Maria in September 2017, the new Exide employees were far from alone in looking for a way to leave. In December 2018, the U.S. Census Bureau release a report that an estimated 130,000 people — almost 4 percent of the island’s population — left Puerto Rico after the hurricanes and their aftermath, which included widespread destruction and months without electricity restored to some parts of the island.
Hurricane Maria also took a deadly toll on the island; a government analysis released in August found nearly 3,000 people died as a result of the storm and its aftereffects.
James originally is from the U.S. Virgin Islands and moved to Puerto Rico to study business. He had been enrolled for only two trimesters when the hurricanes hit. After the storm, he couldn’t afford to continue paying tuition and didn’t want to take out student loans. He got a temporary job at Costco and spent eight months looking for something with better pay before he saw the Exide opportunity. He now hopes to earn enough to pay for additional school and finish his studies in the United States.
Langel said he wanted to make the transition for the new employees as smooth as possible.
The company set up temporary housing in Cedar Rapids and transportation for the employees when they had first arrived, to give them time to find their footing. The plant also held cultural competency training for both the new employees and for their supervisors.
“We would very much liked them to assimilate to the community,” Delaney said. “They’re taking a big step. When you go to a whole new culture, you have to have some courage.”
Delaney said the plant still has vacancies, with additional recruitment trips to Puerto Rico planned.
Exide is far from alone in having difficulties filling open positions; with unemployment in the state at 2.4 percent, recruiting and retaining workers is a challenge across Iowa. And it’s not just factory floor positions that are difficult to fill, Delaney said.
“It’s the professional stuff as well — it’s difficult to find engineers, for example,” he said.
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The Puerto Rican employees started orientation at the Exide plant Jan. 21, arriving in Iowa just in time for weeks of bitter cold.
“The first day here, it was 9 degrees,” James said with a rueful laugh. “It was a cold welcome.”
Still, he thinks the move will be worth it.
He recalled the damage of the storm — his sister’s second-floor condo flooding and people standing in line for two days to get gas, with umbrellas to protect themselves from the sun. The Virgin Islands, meanwhile, fared no better — they also were hit by Hurricanes Maria and Irma, both Category 5 storms.
For Arroyo, the biggest challenge in taking the Exide job has been missing his family.
He left his wife and their two children — a 6-year-old daughter and 6-month-old son — on the island when he moved here. He hopes to have them join him after his daughter finishes the school year, which also gives him time to find adequate housing for his family, hopefully in Manchester.
In the meantime, he talks to them often through the messaging app WhatsApp. On a recent Saturday, he chatted with his wife, and she showed him how their baby son was learning how to turn over.
“When I see him again, he will be running. It’s hard just watching them on a video, but at least we can see them,” he said. “I know in the future, it’s going to benefit us. I know they will be all right.”
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