- Associated Press - Sunday, January 3, 2016

MILWAUKEE (AP) - Seven months after a fire destroyed a Johnsonville Sausage plant in Watertown, employees are still getting paid and the community is enjoying a burst of volunteerism.

The bratwurst-maker is paying full wages and benefits to 120 affected employees while it spends $10 million to renovate a new building, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported Sunday (https://bit.ly/1StXga4 ). Johnsonville even plans to hire an extra 30 workers when the new facility opens this spring.

The plant’s employees receive full salaries as long as they do at least one of three things: volunteer at local organizations, take training classes at the local technical college or work in other Johnsonville facilities. They’ve put in 7,000 hours of volunteer work so far.

“People are amazed that they are continuing to pay their workers to do these things,” said John David, mayor of the city of 24,000. “It’s going above and beyond for sure.”

The Watertown plant accounted for 30 percent of the company’s production. That work was shifted to other Johnsonville facilities, said Nick Meriggioli, who started as CEO just four weeks before the fire. Johnsonville has around 1,600 employees altogether and makes bratwurst, Italian and several other sausage varieties. In 2015, it sold more than 1.6 billion sausages in 40 countries. The company says that’s enough to wrap around the earth five times.

The decision to continue paying the Watertown workers was made by a committee of Johnsonville employees, he said.

“Of course I thought about the financial ramifications of doing it,” Meriggioli said. “But ultimately you understand it’s the right thing to do by the members that are there, and in the long term it’s the right thing to do for the business.”

Volunteering workers have put about 2,500 hours into clearing trees and brush at Watertown Airport, where deer had been hiding in the brush and running out in front of aircraft, said Krys Brown, facilities manager.

For John Kaliebe, who has worked at the plant for 30 years, volunteering inspires pride in the place he works.

“It makes you want to puff your chest out and say: ‘Yeah, I work for Johnsonville,’” he said.

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Information from: Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, https://www.jsonline.com

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