Greater Omaha Packing Co. Meeting Needs of Immigrant Workers

In a time when both immigration and meatpacking are hot topics in the news media, one Omaha meatpacking company has taken its own path to serve the needs of its work force.

Greater Omaha Packing Company (GOP) started offering education classes to employees in 1996, then solidified the multi-faceted education program when it built an addition onto its south Omaha meatpacking facility just a few years ago. The company named the addition the "Education Center." Things happen there that aren't happening in every company.

English language classes. Citizenship classes. Classes to help employees learn about banking, investments, real estate, car insurance, retirement accounts and how to file a tax return. And just about anything else an employee would like to learn.

Angelo Fili, Executive Vice President of GOP, said the company listens to what the employees want, then finds people to teach classes. All the classes are optional. Henry Davis, owner, President and CEO of the company, does not tally up the costs of the classes, Fili said, but offers them to the employees without charge. They started the education program when they noticed a reading deficit in some of the workers, because many hadn't been able to attend school beyond the eight grade levels available in their home country. The company's leadership thought maybe they could help, and started offering some classes - and other classes followed.

Fili, an Omaha native who is in the Omaha South High School Hall of Fame, grew up in this neighborhood of working-class people of many ethnicities. "These are good, honest, clean people," he said. "I'm in awe of this (Hispanic) culture; it's like America was in the 1950s."

"The employees want to learn English, they're very eager.

"The employees want to learn English," Fili said; "they're very eager." Making the classes available on-site was a key to good attendance, and he estimates that 40 to 50 people come to each class. They tried different times for classes; they found the most convenient time to be at the end of a shift. The employees who have bettered themselves have left the company, but they've replaced themselves with friends and relatives, Fili said.

The company employs a work force of nearly 700 people; the majority of the work force is Hispanic and about two-thirds are American citizens. Many of the rest are taking citizenship classes. Before hiring an employee, the company uses an online verification system to be sure that person has legal working status, Fili said.

To his knowledge, they don't employ any illegal immigrants. Many more employees would like to become American citizens, but the immigration system is so broken there's no one to help them, he said. "I've asked for callbacks from Customs, and I haven't had a call back in over a year."

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