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A bus carrying foreign workers to KLN Family Brands in Perham departs from the Wadena VFW Monday night. The VFW makes one meal a day for the workers, who reside at the Eastwood Motel.

Foreign workers ease KLN labor shortage

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Despite intense recruiting efforts through advertisements and at job fairs, KLN Family Brands just can't find enough workers for its Perham factories.

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It's an expensive problem.

Over a six week period this spring, idle production lines cost the company $330,000 in unfilled orders, said KLN recruiter Fred Sailer.

Unable to find enough employees locally, the company cast a wider net. A lot wider.

KLN turned to Global Workforce, a Fergus Falls-based agency that has provided businesses with temporary workers from throughout the world for decades.

Earlier this month, the first wave of foreign employees began punching the clock at Barrel O' Fun. Due to a housing shortage in Perham, the workers are staying at Wadena's Eastwood Inn, commuting via a Global Workforce bus.

When they've all arrived, there will be about 60 temps, mostly men between 19 and 35, working the evening and overnight shifts. The majority are from Ukraine, while others hail from the Philippines, Moldova, Brazil, Mexico and South Africa.

Originally expected in March, an "application snafu," as Sailer put it, delayed their arrival. Their 10-month temporary work visas will expire at the end of the year, although workers are eligible to return to the United States next year.

"It's very important for us to hire local people," Sailer said, but if the program goes well this year and the labor shortage continues - even with the temporary employees, KLN is still seeking "production team members" - he expects the company will employ another round of international workers starting next March.

"We're off to an excellent start," he said. "They've been an absolute joy to work with - upbeat, friendly, hardworking. It's been everything and more than we expected."

As a part of the visa application process, the workers - some of whom have previously worked in the United States - were cleared by the departments of Labor and Homeland Security. Sailer and Nancy Belka, KLN human resources director, also interviewed them over Skype.

If applicants weren't able to speak English, the interview ended quickly, Sailer said. "It's too short of a time span to struggle with that."

The workers are primarily here to make money, he said, noting some of the hundreds of thousands of dollars they'll earn through the end of the year will circulate in the local economy, at grocery stores, restaurants, movie theaters, etc.

"They're very nice people," said Joe Randall, manager of the Wadena VFW, which has a contract with Global Workforce to provide the workers one meal a day.

On Monday night, just before heading to Perham for the overnight shift, the crew ate sausages, potatoes, some veggies and an apple slaw in the VFW basement.

Before hurriedly finishing his meal, Oleh Sokol explained what the Barrel O' Fun job means for him - and his wife and two daughters 5,000 miles away in western Ukraine. Although his home is far from the war that's dividing the eastern part of the country, his family struggles to get by. Sokol's wife earns just $100 a month working in the energy industry.

"How can we live on that?" asked Sokol. "It's impossible. In Ukraine, there's no jobs, no money. This program helps us. It's very real help."

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