My Short “Career” Packing Meat

Today’s post comes from Jim Tjepkema

I could see that my work as a private agricultural consultant was coming to an end.  Many of the vegetable farmers that were my best customers were retiring or going out of business.  I found an opening working as a temporary employee in a local meat packing plant and ended up working at that plant for 2 years.  During those two years I worked at many different positions, starting as a laboratory technician, followed by working at a variety of quality control jobs, and finishing up by working on various production lines.

I learned a lot about the production of processed meat, and met many very interesting people.   There were times when I didn’t mind working at that plant.   However, in many ways it was not a good place to work.  A man who had worked there for many years told me that while it might look as if he liked his job, the opposite was true for him and many of the other employees.

In my first position at the plant I had limited contact with people working in the production areas.  I did get to know the quality control clerk who sent samples up to me from a production line.  She and I developed a good working relationship helping each other to make sure the samples were checked in a timely manner.   One night didn’t go so well when I tried to bring her test results while she was eating in the lunchroom. She made it very, very clear that I should never bother her during her lunch break.

I went from working in the lab to working as a quality control clerk when they eliminated the job I had in the lab.  I found out that those clerks often had a very difficult time completing all of the checking and sampling that was required.

In fact, I wasn’t able to do some of those jobs fast enough.  The position I was given required me to learn to fill in at any and all of the many different quality control clerk jobs.  When it was clear that I wouldn’t be able to master all of those jobs in the small amount of time I was given me to learn them, I moved on to production work.

I started out on a ham line putting chunks of sliced ham into compartments on a bagging machine.  At first I wasn’t able to do this job fast enough.  However, they gave me enough time at this job to get up to speed and I eventually mastered the job.   Unfortunately, work on that ham line was seasonal and I had to move on to another job.  I took several different temporary jobs in other parts of the plant to hold me over until I was needed again on the ham line.   With more time to learn the temporary jobs, I might have been able to handle all of them.  However, they gave me very little time to learn them and I failed at some of them.  At that point I decided I was not cut out to be a meat packer, bringing my days working there to an end.

What kind of short term work have you done that was interesting or not so interesting?

36 thoughts on “My Short “Career” Packing Meat”

  1. I worked for a few months right out of college at a group home for developmentally delayed adults. There were five residents in the house, each with their own quirks and, in some cases, heart breaking stories. Most of the residents were non-verbal or had limited language skills – all found other ways to express themselves (some more “socially acceptable” than others…).

    One of the two women in the home had moved there shortly before I started, one of the last residents to be moved out of state hospitals where we once warehoused the handicapped and mentally delayed or infirm. While there was no documented evidence in her file, some sleuthing by staff after some, um, distressing behavior indicated that hers had not been a good life under state care. Truly an example of why she was legally a “vulnerable adult” – not able to defend herself or even verbalize what had happened (though it was plenty clear in some situations – which is why after about a week, only female staff assisted with any restroom, bathing or dressing assistance).

    The other was a man who had, against the advice of “the professionals” of the time (the 1960s), been kept at home to be cared for by his mother until his teens, when she was no longer capable of caring for him. At that point he, too, was sent to a state hospital. He went into the hospital with a limited vocabulary, but none-the-less clear words, and an ability to participate independently (and joy in) a few outdoor activities. He came out with severe side effects from over sedation, no words, and headaches that staff knew had come on because he hit his head against a wall. It all broke my heart.

    These were wonderful souls that had been damaged by a system that had started with the best of intentions but was very very broken. I only lasted a few months before finding work that paid better – though it pained me to leave those folks who, heaven knows, needed some stability and kindness in their world.

    Liked by 5 people

    1. Anna, it seems short term jobs can put us in touch with situations that give us insight into what is gong on in the world. I learned alot during my short “career” at a meat packing plant and it appears you learned alot during the months you worked at a group home.

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    2. Daughter is doing that work now. She loves her residents (most of the time). ND cleared out the institution for the developmentally disabled in the 1970’s. The behavior problems of some of the folks who returned to the communities were something else. We are still dealing with it today, but it is getting better and now there are so many more service providers and we have a better notion of how to prevent the behavior issues from starting. Husband is an ace at working the the DD population and developing interventions for behaviors.

      Liked by 3 people

      1. I worked my gig in the late 1980s. I think we have a lot better understanding now about things like not medicating or over medicating, engaging folks in work and community, and not locking them away like they are an embarrassment and inconvenience. My few months in that job have stuck with me as a touch stone when I think on justice, fairness, and what it means to be in community and support community.

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      2. During my years as a substitute teacher I filled in for special education teachers many times. The school district where I subbed did provide extensive programs for students with disabilities. I was told by several special ed teachers that one of their biggest problems is the very extensive amount of paper work that they have to complete which reduces the amount of time they have available to help the kids in their classes.

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      3. I remember that time very well. I worked in many of the facilities as they were remodeled. Up at Grafton, the tunnels between buildings used to move residents were something out of the Paris sewers. Horrible! I became buddies with one of the residents who worked in the cafeteria. One day, right out of the blue he told me, “They’re not going to pay you for this.”
        I said, “What?”
        “They’re not going to pay you for this.”
        “Why not? We’ve been working here for months.”
        “I’ve been working here for 24 years and they haven’t paid me yet.”

        Liked by 5 people

        1. For those Baboons not from ND, the Grafton to which Wessew refers was the main institution for the developmentally disabled. It is now referred to as the State Development Center and provides assessment and behavioral consultation, as well as some residential services for a very few number of DD individauls who really can’t be placed back in the community.

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    3. Thanks for that, Anna. In 1964 I spent an afternoon visiting a state institution for mentally disabled people. The crude term in those days for such a place was “the state loony bin.” I mention that because, frankly, that place didn’t deserve a more politically correct label. It was an ugly old warehouse where mentally challenged people could be kept out of sight where they wouldn’t inconvenience anyone. The institution didn’t even pretend to be helping those folks. I was shocked to the core by what I saw.

      I spent about forty minutes trying to understand what one resident was trying to tell me. He was labeled a “spastic” by the staff. He tried and tried to put words together in a way I could understand. It obviously meant a great deal to him to communicate. He tried and tried. After nearly an hour I understood him. He was saying, “My mommy has a new daddy. My new daddy hates me.” In those days it was common for guys in my college dormitory to insult friends by calling them “spastics.” After my afternoon with that poor soul I never used that word that way again.

      In the 1970s many states dismantled those institutions. The explanation at the time was that they were too expensive and were based on outdated thinking. The plan was to replace them with more small, modern treatment centers. At the time I had little faith that something better would actually be created and funded, and I don’t know how well Minnesota or any other state has handled this issue.

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    4. Anna, thank you for doing this. We have always thought it takes a special person to deal with the kids and adults in the group homes or developmental delayed classes. They’re underpaid and over worked. But they’re always smiling and great with the kids. And for that we are grateful.

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      1. There was student on the Autism spectrum who was in a few of Daughter’s classes. In fourth grade all of the classes take a three day trip to Deep Portage in the winter – lots of great outdoor stuff, learning about nature, and other cool class trip stuff. This student came on the trip with one of the paraprofessionals from the school. That man was gentleness and patience incarnate – he knew exactly when he needed to redirect his charge, when to encourage participation, when to allow a break and some quiet time. I can only hope he got overtime pay and a good rest when he got home. Watching him in action was a lesson in grace. Also it was clear that he loved his work and seeing his charge learn and grow.

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  2. Being a test subject for a pharmaceutical company. The absorption rate of a medication was being measured requiring hourly blood draws for the first eight hours and then every four hours for the rest of the 24 hour period. The second day only required two more. A long weekend but worth the three hundred bucks in 1985 dollars.

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  3. I had a work-from-home job briefly, working for the IRS taking calls from people ordering forms and publications. There was an IT company that managed the process of routing calls to operators all over the country and connecting everyone in a virtual workspace. The job was a seasonal one, from late December to mid-April. It meshed well with my gardening season.

    I really liked not having to leave the house in the wintertime if it was cold and/or snowy. I could take breaks during the my shift and take Sammy out for a walk, or spend a little time in the kitchen putting together something for dinner. The aroma of something baking in the oven or simmering on the stove in the afternoon made the work more pleasant.

    The system measured the number of calls taken by each operator, and the length of each call. We were supposed to average two minutes per call. I came close to the target average, but was never one of the fastest. I don’t multitask well, and typing in information while listening to someone speaking can trip me up if they get ahead of me.

    Years later, someone tried to e-file a tax return using my name and SSN and date of birth. Eventually I discovered that my information was compromised in a hack of the federal Office of Personnel Management.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I worked briefly as a publicist. A man was touring the US delivering theatrical presentation of the humor of a writer named Patrick McManus, a man whose humor was based in hunting and fishing. Because of my connection to outdoor sports, I got hired to publicize this fellow’s one-night in Minneapolis. I accepted the job thinking, “How hard can that be?”

    I cringe at this memory now. It didn’t help that I had no contacts with any of the publicity outlets. It didn’t help that this man wasn’t known by anyone in Minnesota. It didn’t help that I have always been an introvert who shies away from anything remotely associated with publicity. I tried hard to overcome my shyness but didn’t do a good job. Just when I realized I was in over my head my wife had a medical emergency that preoccupied me and kept me from salvaging the assignment.

    The performance took place in a small theater that wasn’t, it turned out, nearly small enough. Minneapolis was struck that evening by a blizzard so bad the DOT urged everyone to stay off the highways and streets. Sixteen people died in that storm. I remember thinking the audience for that performance could have been comfortably seated in my little bungalow.

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  5. When I was in college I used to do paralegal research at my dad’s law office during my long winter break and over the summers. Because of that, one of his partners asked me to temp for him one summer when his regular secretary was out on maternity leave. He did lots of personal injury cases which meant I often ended up typing up testimony involving horrible injuries in detail. I’ve never ridden a motorcycle because of this….

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Fun topic, Jim. I started up life in three new cities via temp. secretarial agencies in the early 70s. Some of the highlights (in no particular order):

    – two days of solid Xeroxing of files (but hey, I was on Market St. overlooking the San Francisco Bay)
    – interviewing job applicants for Eastern States Bank Card (later called MasterCard) on Long Island
    – helping with layout for company newsletters (Mpls)
    – doing bills of lading for a photographic firm in downtown San Francisco
    – helping transfer inventory from manual to computer system (SF Mission district)
    – messenger carrying packages of type all over Manhattan (a perfect job for a green New York City resident wanting to learn the subways)
    – and the worst: collections calls in downtown Mpls – I lasted exactly one week.

    A lot of these jobs would no longer exist, with electronic messaging etc.

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  7. Hi–

    Not counting most theater jobs where we’re hired just for that show anyway,
    My first real job, ‘off the farm’ was for ‘Anderson’s Formal Wear’; a tuxedo wholesaler. Dad knew a guy who’s kid worked there. I was just 16 and most of the JM High School Basketball A team worked there. They were seniors and very nice to me.

    The job only lasted about 2 months. I pressed suit coats and vests, sometimes pants.
    If it was slow there we pulled hampers full of clean clothes and hung back on the racks. Had to match style and size.
    And one day I came in and they said ‘Nothing to do, go home and we’ll call you.’ and I never heard from them again. Guess we got through the June wedding rush.
    It was there I got my only nickname from a rough looking lady that worked there. She called me ‘Spanky’ from day one. I don’t think she ever did know my real name.

    Liked by 2 people

  8. quarrying limestone for fort Snelling was a great guys job working construction for a summer , wow was I in shape. working at the old folks home as a janitor cleaning rooms, loved the people ended up befriending so many of them they made me an aid who shaved the men and helped the ladies with whatever I could. fun work
    paper routes then selling… a quick couple ditties en 40 years of adlibbing a song and dance

    Liked by 2 people

  9. The people I worked with at the meat packing plant were all good workers who worked quickly and efficiently. If you weren’t a good worker you wouldn’t last very long because you were always being pushed to work as fast as possible. When a group of workers found a way to get ahead so they could take a break they increased their work load. A person who came into the plant to repair a broken machine told one of the workers that he machine broke down because it was being run faster than the top speed at which it was designed to operate.

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      1. There was a separate part of the plant with lower paid workers who cut up the meat. I had very little contact with that part of the plant. That part of the plant is probably a place where you can find Upton Sinclair The Jungle moments.

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  10. Luverne had a meat processing plant, and those guys worked really hard carrying those beef sides around. It also was a kosher kill plant, and when I was in Grade 6 our class went to watch the ritual slaughter.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Well, for us as Grade 6 students, seeing people who were actually Jewish was so exotic that it was really exciting and minimized the horror of the killing.

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  11. I worked one summer selling ice cream bars out of a converted mail truck. It had a “freezer” which was not powered but stuffed with dry ice to keep the Ice cream bars frozen. After one day doing this I brought along my mom’s old gloves from the days when women wore gloves to church. They were black. I wore them to protect my hands from being burned by the dry ice. The truck had a tape player which had 2 tapes: one played random bell sounds to attract customers and one played Sammy Davis Jr. singing “Candy Man” in a continuous loop. I did not choose to listen to Sammy after the first day. But here it is: I won’t be sad if you do not listen to it all the way through.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. There’s a creepy ice cream truck that goes around town. It’s got Mexican images and phrases on the side (at least I think it’s mexican; hard to tell) and it has an electronic music box on it so it’s like your old cell phone playing music to attract kids.
      I think it’s scary.

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