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Perdue treads lightly but leaves deep impressions

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Although Perdue leaves a considerable economic footprint on the state, it’s not the most visible company even in the Sussex County cities it has transformed. 

Drive through Milford or Georgetown, and you might not know Perdue is there unless you drive by one of the plants.

It’s not the kind of industry to offer tours. Most people eat a lot of chicken — 93 pounds a year on average — but don’t particularly want to see the transformation from squawking animal to boneless chicken breast.

As a privately held company, Perdue isn’t required to answer questions about itself, and the company declined to comment for this story. So we went to state and local officials instead to get an idea of how the company is affecting the state and, especially, Milford and Georgetown.

The Perdue Wellness Center is the primary-care provider for employees participating in the company insurance plan. | Photo by Eric Crossan

To be clear, Perdue is only one of several poultry companies in Delaware, though it is more visible because its brand name appears in grocery aisles. 

The company says it employs 3,125 people in Delaware and claims a statewide economic impact of $579 million. That figure includes a multiplier of 1.93 to estimate the economic impact of spinoff activities.

Like other poultry companies, Perdue practices a vertical integration model. From egg to chicken to chicken breast, the company controls every step in the process. It contracts with farmers to feed and grow the chickens, but they’re Perdue’s birds.

Leaders in Milford and Georgetown, which host major Perdue processing plants, praise the company as a good corporate citizen and economic engine. Perdue is easily the largest employer in both cities, and it pays well compared with the alternatives, Milford Mayor Archie Campbell says.

“Salaries are not great in lower slower but if you get a job working for Perdue you become a fat rat,” he says. 

The company has done a better job in recent years of helping their employees, many of whom are immigrants, get integrated into the community, said State Rep. Ruth Briggs King, who represents the Georgetown area.

“At first, they weren’t receptive but that’s changed over the years … as they’ve become more engaged with providing things to the community, like a playground or financial support,” she said. 

Perdue said it donated $122,694 to Delaware nonprofits in 2017. When Georgetown’s chamber of commerce asks Perdue to donate chicken for a fundraiser, the company obliges, Mayor Bill West says.

Perdue’s largely immigrant workforce has also changed both cities. As of 2010, 32% of Georgetown residents were of Guatemalan descent, the fifth-highest concentration in the country. 

The children of the company’s workers have increased enrollment at local schools; Indian River School District has 47% more students than it did in 2006. Statewide, enrollment has risen much more slowly, by 14%.

The district has tried and failed to pass two referendums to alleviate its space crunch. In the meantime, the district has added trailer-like outdoor classrooms.

“One factor (behind the enrollment growth) has been an increase in our English Learner student population, some which can be attributed to Perdue’s and other employers’ active roles in our community,” Milford School District Superintendent Kevin Dickerson said in an email.

Not all of the company’s contributions are positive. In 2015, Perdue was fined $85,000 for dumping water contaminated with nutrient pollution and fecal bacteria into a tributary of the Broadkill River across southern Delaware.

In addition, though the respective mayors say it is rare, there is an odd odor here, a loud, malfunctioning motor there. 

A good neighbor?

Perdue employs roughly 1,500 people each in Georgetown and Milford. Both plants are located inside their city limits, and each is their town’s largest utility customer.

“It’s not common for a poultry plant to be located within city limits … but Perdue management and employees do a good job of trying to be a good neighbor to the community,” Milford City Manager Eric Norenberg says.

He says about one-third of the plant’s employees, or about 500 people, live within the town itself.

“I think there’s little understanding of how much business in the area is related to ag,” says Rep. Briggs King, from trucking firms to move seed or grain to the farmers raising chickens or the crops to feed them.

Semi-truck traffic temporarily blocks the road in Georgetown. | Photo by Eric Crossan

Leaders in both towns say semi-truck traffic is the only real problem associated with their plants, and both have taken steps to funnel truck traffic to the roads that can handle their weight.

In Georgetown, the semis are too large to navigate traffic circles but try anyway, sometimes cracking wheelchair ramps in the process, Mayor West says.

Who is the Perdue employee?

Like other poultry processors, Perdue depends on immigrants to process chickens. It’s work that many native-born Americans will not do.

“It’s hard work and sometimes it becomes nasty work,” says West.

Delaware’s poultry processing industry paid an average wage of about $39,000 in 2019, or about $19 an hour. This figure includes everyone who works in the industry, not solely front-line workers. 

It’s also valuable as one of the last major employers with a high demand for unskilled labor.

“It’s the last institution that hires people and can train them like that,” West says.

Campbell, a New Jersey transplant turned Milford mayor who once managed plants himself, says workers are treated well in the town. “My people were never as happy,” he says.

Still, being a poultry worker is a more repetitive, dangerous occupation than most. In 2016, the poultry industry’s rate of injuries causing job transfer or restrictions were three times higher than private industry as a whole.

When the Georgetown plant first started hiring immigrant laborers, most were single young men, King said. But as more families arrived or were built here, “that changed the dynamic,” she says.

Meanwhile, the school district has added staff to teach English and counselors to provide social and mental health support, Superintendent Dickerson said. They’ve also added after-school English tutoring, summer programs and family literacy to help parents and other adults learn English.

West is a retired state trooper and continues to drive the neighborhoods.

“The streets that used to be littered with trash are cleaning up,” he says.

The city has made efforts to help integrate the newcomers, too, including by hiring Latino police officers.

“They want to be part of the community and we want them to be part of the community,” he says. 

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