By Billy Liggett
I was a college student with a cushy front desk job at a somewhat high-end hotel in the spring of 1996 when I got the news that they didn’t need quite so many people for the summer.
So I was fired. Still the only time that ever happened to me. It still stings.
Broke and in need of rent money, my friend Tony (also in need of a paycheck) and I went to an employment agency willing to accept anything. Anything came in the form of two jobs — chicken processing plant and dog food processing plant. Line work. Tony took the chicken, and I went with dog food.
I’ll put the positive out there first. These jobs paid much better than the minimum wage I got at hotels or grocery stores. It more than covered the rent and beer money.
But the work itself was brutal. I was fortunate in that I got the tail end (so to speak) of the dog food line. I was in packaging and loading. Lots of heavy lifting and tedious repetitive motions. Eight hours a day. Forty hours a week. I was thankful I didn’t have to make the food — Tony, who chopped off chicken heads, wasn’t as fortunate. But at the end of every shift, I was spent. Exhausted. Physically and mentally.
The job lasted three months, then back to school. That winter, we needed work again and found it at a carburator refurbishing plant that my dad headed the maintenance department for. While this wasn’t the repetitive line work, it was a messy job — the worst part was cleaning the machines that oiled the carburators and removing tons of “gunk” and metal shavings from those machines.
All this to say, I’m thankful to be a writer, an editor, a news and publications director and all the other things I get to do that require very minimal manual labor (my fingers do kind of hurt after each edition). And I have the utmost respect for the men and women who work these jobs — physical, back-breaking labor that offers little in the “reward” category aside from a regular paycheck and the pride in doing a job well (not that those are bad rewards).
These jobs have been in the spotlight during the COVID-19 pandemic because of outbreaks in processing and manufacturing plants across the state and the country. Meat plants alone have accounted for more than 2,000 virus cases in North Carolina. Nationally, more than 17,000 people have been infected (according to one reporting network), with at least 66 deaths.
And there’s little these men and women can do about it. Line work requires close contact with others around you. It requires you to work indoors. It often requires you to stand in one spot (the length of the square rubber mat under your feet) for hours at a time.
Often, it requires sweat. It requires labor and heavy breathing. These are jobs that can be made more difficult by breathing through a mask. My dog food job was in an un-air conditioned warehouse in Texas in June, July and August.
These plants have taken steps to improve safety — temperature checks, better sick leave policies and the aforementioned masks are good starts, but the threat is still very real. I wish I had all the answers. Instead, all I have is empathy.
What I do know is these men and women deserve better. And they deserve the same respect and care our frontline and other essential workers are receiving during this pandemic. These jobs are hard, but in many cases, they’re vital. We need chicken. We need dog food. And we need car parts.
We can’t, in good faith, enjoy these things without acknowledging the people who make them and advocating for their safety.
Billy Liggett is a co-founder of The Rant. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.