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A Muscatine woman helps recruit migrant workers. Because of the war in Ukraine, many were unable to come this year

Business isn't what Irina Mealy expected this year as she watches many of her Ukraine-based workers join the military or hide in bunkers during air raids.

MUSCATINE, Iowa — In 2016, Irina Mealy founded iWorkMarket to help businesses across the U.S. recruit and hire seasonal migrant workers. Mealy, who lives in Muscatine, helps people get H-2B and H-2A visas to work for agricultural or nonagricultural businesses. 

Over the years, she's lost count of how many workers she's helped hire and for how many companies.

"I get phone calls from all over the country and in so many states, I lost count," Mealy said. "(There's) a seafood company where right now I have a big challenge to put together a team. It's over 200 people."

Mealy herself is from Russia. She immigrated to the U.S. in 2000.

iWorkMarket has recruiters in Poland, France, Israel, Mexico, Lithuania, Moldova, and also hires workers from Costa Rica, Guatemala, and Haiti. However, the majority of its workers are from western Ukraine.

"What just happened in Ukraine, it was a big change for everything," Mealy said. "It kind of destroyed what I was trying to accomplish because it was going and doing so good until this happened just recently. So now we're fighting with the challenges." 

Many of her Ukraine-based workers already had their visas to come work in the U.S. for the season, but because of the Russian invasion, are now unable to. She estimates more than 20 people can't work right now.

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"They had their tickets, so they were about to leave their country. Like it was February 24th, 25th, 26th, the workers were lined up to leave the country to come back," Mealy said. "Nobody believed that was going to happen. It was a shock. They could have left like a couple days earlier if we knew, but they were scheduled right exactly after that date. So many companies didn't get their workers back."

All Ukrainian men ages 18-60 were banned from leaving the country. Mealy has had to work to recruit more people from other countries to fill their jobs.

A few of her workers were still able to leave Ukraine and come to the U.S., Mealy said, because of medical conditions or if they have more than three children.

One of the companies she helps recruit for is Stevens Erosion Control in Hills, Iowa. The landscaping construction business started working with Mealy a few years ago, according to CFO Nathan Sams.

"Labor has been getting tougher over the years. It's kind of been brought to the forefront now, but in construction, it's really been an issue for the last five to seven years and it's really been compounded over the last couple of years because of COVID," Sams said. "We deal with a lot of road construction, so not having enough people is very detrimental."

Stevens Erosion Control was supposed to have eight people from Ukraine working for the season. Instead, only three were able to come this year.

Two had stayed in Iowa in between the busy road construction seasons and the other was able to leave Ukraine before things got bad, Sams said.

One man, Slava, who worked for Stevens Erosion Control last year, was one of the five unable to come. He is part of the Ukrainian military.

"He's a fairly funny guy," Sams said. "When we get the change to and when they can, sometimes they can communicate with us. We're trying to keep up to date with them. They really want to come back. We miss them a lot. They're great guys. We enjoy them. They become part of our kind of big extended family so to speak."

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Mealy also keeps in contact with many of the workers still in Ukraine. Some have sent her pictures in their military uniforms, others have sent photos of them during Russian air raids.

"They just tell me okay, we're doing okay over here. Some of them are just watching, helping in town to make sure that there are no bad people walking around because Russia sent spies and they just have to watch out," Mealy said. "It is scary what's going on. And there've been many nights that I've cried and I was hoping to wake up and see something good on the news. It's very disturbing to see what they show what's going on over there."

Dima Kozlovskyi is one of the three Ukrainian men working for Stevens Erosion currently. His wife and three-year-old son are living in Odessa.

"They're in very dangerous place right now... Some of the rockets targeting very close to my house," Kozlovskyi said. "It's disaster for us, for all of us because it's ruin our life, all our plans." 

"It's a difficult situation," Sams said. "Honestly, those guys are amazing in the fact that they can continue to work every day and then they're worried about their families. It's an eight hour time difference, so they can only talk to them when it's late and it's not necessarily easy to."

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Kozlovskyi said while he worries about his family, he knows they rely on the money he's making working in Iowa.

"Everything's expensive. Fuel, food, everything," he said. "So I'm only one person in my family like in charge who can help them."

Sams has been trying to help get his wife and son visas.

"Normally, their families can come on what's known as an H4 visa," Sams said. "That's becoming harder to do at the moment with what's going on."

Since interviewing Sams and Kozlovskyi, they've found out this his wife and sons' visas have been approved and they will hopefully be in Iowa in the next few weeks.

Mealy has been also helping some of her workers currently in the U.S. get visas for their families.

"I've been working probably like sometimes 2, 4, 5 a.m. just because so many people call and say, 'Can we bring my family?'" she said. "And of course, I start working on the paperwork to get their families over here."

It's a business that's become personal to both her and Sams, and goes beyond just hiring workers to fill essential jobs.

"You just get to know people, you just get to know their family situation," Mealy said. "They just tell you what's going on."

"You're not going to turn your back on people that you care about," Sams said. "You're going to help them with whatever you can."

Mealy encourages those who are able to participate in the Uniting for Ukraine program. The program helps provide a pathway for Ukrainian citizens and their immediate family members to come to the U.S. and stay temporarily in a two-year period of parole. You can volunteer to be a sponsor and provide them with financial support for the duration of their stay.

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