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Former Rakhra workers are in dire need

Modified: Wednesday, Jan 30th, 2013

Literally a sign of difficult times, the Emergency Food Bank on Sixth Street in Alamosa calls for donations to assist the numerous families who are struggling. Many of them are former Rakhra Mushroom Farm employees. Courier photo by Ruth Heide

Courier editor

ALAMOSA — “Since I’ve worked here I don’t think I have ever seen such dire need,” SLV Immigrant Resource Center Executive Director Flora Archuleta commented about the toll Rakhra Mushroom Farm job cuts have taken on a large segment of the Alamosa community.

Archuleta and her small staff see the need every day. People who no longer have jobs at the mushroom farm are struggling to pay rent, keep up with utilities and buy food and household items like laundry soap and toilet paper.

To save rent, families are moving in together with as many as 10-12 people sharing a home.

“They are not out on the streets yet, but they are trying to do everything possible to stay together,” Archuleta said.

“Working at the mushroom farm they were barely getting by but at least they were able to pay their bills.”

Some who were laid off a year ago, when Rakhra first filed for bankruptcy, are running out of unemployment benefits. They are applying for whatever jobs they can find, but there are not enough jobs to go around. For many, finding a new job is even more difficult because they cannot speak English or their English skills are minimal.

The immigrant center offers English classes, which are becoming more and more vital for displaced Rakhra workers looking for work.

The population hit the hardest by Rakhra’s financial troubles is the Guatemalan community, which Archuleta said comprised 90 percent of the Rakhra workforce. (The rest were people from Mexico and local citizens, some of which had worked at the farm for many years.)

She estimated about 400 people — men, women and children — in the local Guatemalan community have been affected by the Rakhra layoffs and job cuts. She said those who are still working at the farm, which in its heyday employed 260-280 people, have not been paid in a month. At the end of November the workforce was down to 130.

Archuleta added one of the Rakhra staff told her on Tuesday no new mushroom crop had been planted in the past two weeks.

Calls to farm management were not returned.

Rakhra’s bankruptcy proceeding is still pending in court, with the next hearing scheduled for February 20, according to one of the Denver attorneys representing the corporation, Gina Ries. She stated on Monday the case is scheduled for a confirmation hearing on Rakhra’s plan of reorganization on February 20.

Archuleta said she understood the bankruptcy judge was dissatisfied with Rakhra’s plan so refused to accept it, but no one seemed to know for sure what was happening.

Around Thanksgiving local members of the Rakhra bare-bones management team said Rakhra mushrooms were in high demand as they entered their busiest season during the holidays, and they hoped the next six months would be better. At that time they encouraged local grocers to buy Rakhra mushrooms to help support the farm and its laborers.

Archuleta said the San Luis Valley community and beyond have been supportive of the displaced Rakhra workers and their families, and she has appreciated the compassion many people have shown during this difficult time.

For example, a women’s group in Salida recently approached her asking how they could help.

“They are getting together on Wednesday and will start getting supplies and seeing how they can help. The community has been very, very supportive, but the need is just so great. I don’t think it’s ever been greater.”

She suggested to the Salida group, and recommends the same to local folks who want to help, donations of basic household items would be much appreciated because even families who are receiving food stamp and food bank assistance have no money for items such as laundry soap, toilet tissue, facial tissue, diapers, hygiene items such as toothpaste and soap, and many other items not covered by food stamps.

Food items are also appreciated, especially items such as rice, corn flour and black beans, which are popular among the Guatemalan residents, Archuleta explained.

La Puente’s emergency food bank, which is working closely with Archuleta, as are the rest of the staff at La Puente, is also very low on food items as it attempts to keep up with the increased demand.

Archuleta said she always tries to keep snacks on hand at the resource center so when families come in, she can give the children something to eat, because often they are hungry. She recently ran out and has ordered more snacks, but her budget is limited so she can only do so much. Her staff has also seen cuts, going from four to three people to deal with the routine business of the center, helping people with legal documentation, as well as the added work of trying to assist families who lost their jobs at Rakhra.

“It’s taking a toll,” she said.

Archuleta and her staff assist such families with filling out paperwork for assistance, applying for jobs and applying for or renewing their unemployment online. Even when families are able to receive assistance such as LEAP (Low-income Energy Assistance Program), the aid does not cover everything.

Archuleta is accepting donations of household items such as toilet paper, hygiene items like toothpaste and nonperishable food items at the resource center at the east end of Sixth Street in Alamosa, 225 Sixth Street, Suite B.

Monetary donations are also welcome to help folks with rent and utility expenses. They may be sent in care of the SLV Immigrant Resource Center to the street address above or P.O. Box 1534, Alamosa 81101. Archuleta has a separate account for such assistance, so checks should be made out to the SLV Immigrant Resource Center but clearly designated for the former Rakhra workers who are in need.

Archuleta said over the holidays local churches got together and raised $3,400 to help the former Rakhra workers with such expenses as rent and utilities. Archuleta and her staff are taking applications and trying to make judicious decisions about how to spend that money.

“We are going to try to help with whatever we can,” she said. “If it will keep somebody in their home or pay their electric or heating bill for a month, at least it’s something.”

Archuleta said the Guatemalan community is close knit and helps each other as much as possible. Alamosa has been a welcoming place for them, she added, and many members of the community arrived here in the mid-1980’s to find a place of asylum from their war-torn country. This has become home, and they do not want to move away if they can keep from it. Many of their children have been born here.

Some Guatemalans, as well as other members of the Alamosa community, have worked at Rakhra for 25 years or so.

Archuleta said she knew of a handful of people who left here to go to Texas, where there is also a mushroom farm, but they said they did not feel as welcome there.

“Some have already said ‘we hate to leave but we might not have any other choice but to make the move someplace else’.”

She said she wished the Valley had another industry to offer employment.

“They are hard working people. They are not afraid to work,” she said.

She said many former Rakhra mushrooms are hoping the farm’s financial situation will improve and they will be able to work there again, but others are realizing they may have to work in other positions.

“They are taking whatever they can possibly get at this point,” she said.

Some have found work at warehouses, others at McDonald’s.

“They are looking everywhere. Whatever is available, they will take it.”

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