By Jennifer Eisenbart
While work has begun to salvage property and equipment at Echo Lake Foods – and some employees are now working at the company’s Yorkville site – the reality of Jan. 30’s fire is beginning to hit home.
While dozens of employees have moved to the Yorkville site, others don’t want to make the drive. Still others are being offered jobs in the Burlington area, and general manager Jerry Warntjes said Tuesday that while he wants everyone back, the reality is that he likely won’t maintain his entire workforce.
“I want them to come back,” Warntjes said. “I’m worried about it.
“More than I want to lose, I know that,” said Warntjes about the number of people likely not to return. “But I can’t take them all on, I can’t give them all a job.
“I can’t begrudge them a job.”
Still, progress is being made. A large amount of debris on the fire site – which burned for more 24 hours and had more than 4 million gallons of water dumped on it – has been cleared. Warntjes said that about 30,000 square feet – or 30 percent – of the grounds were untouched by the fire.
Insurance adjusters are still investigating the fire, though Warntjes said he has his own idea of where the fire started.
“I have a very strong opinion of where the fire started,” the general manager said. “But nothing official.”
And Warntjes said they might never have an exact determination.
Another positive for the company was the Racine Workforce Development seminar held Feb. 6 at Veterans Terrace. Workers filled two of the three sessions, and Warntjes guessed that about 300 people showed up to get information about the company and research different job opportunities.
“We were very pleased with the turnout,” said Warntjes. A job fair was scheduled for Wednesday for Echo Lakes Foods employees and others looking for work.
The general manager said Tuesday that the outpouring of support has been incredible.
“It’s been amazing,” Warntjes said. “Local contractors have been amazing. We’re busy tearing stuff down and figuring out how to get part of the plant back up and in production.
“I think everybody realizes the cascade effect when a business goes down.”
Love Inc. Executive Director Bill Schoessling said Tuesday that so far, the fundraising effort with Talmer Bank and Thrivent has been going well.
“We’re staying ahead of the game here in the food pantry,” Schoessling said. “We’re optimistic.”
Schoessling said that workforce development meetings were critical for employees last week.
“I think it clarified the employees’ thoughts,” he said. “They found the direction.
“I think they felt a lot more comfortable after those meetings.”
Love Inc. had more than 90 families come in that had been employed by Echo Lake last week, and has gotten more this week, according to Schoessling. For the time being, those families are being allowed access to the food bank once a week, as opposed to the usual once a month.
While the food bank has been keeping up with demand, the next big hurdle Schoessling foresees is when rent and bills come due. The agency has received a $10,000 disaster grant from Salvation Army.
While that may seem like a lot of money, the reality is it will not stretch far enough to help everyone.
“It’s only really going to help about 35 families,” Schoessling said.
United Way and Red Cross have teamed up to create a rental assistance fund and with Love Inc. those agencies are looking to provide the families with up to a half month of rent. Love Inc. is expecting temporary expense of about $30,000 per month to assist the families of the displaced workers.