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My tale as a temp worker with UPS

I loaded and unloaded cargo in Des Moines for the holidays, learning the importance of a hard day’s work – and ball bearings as a moving aid.

By Steve DinnenContributor / February 18, 2009

Outdoor uniform: Steve Dinnen worked the holiday season loading and unloading cargo containers for UPS in Des Moines, Iowa – an experience that made him appreciate the theory of layered clothing and receiving a paycheck, no matter how small.

Courtesy of Steve Dinnen

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Des Moines, Iowa

Under normal conditions, I would not stand under the fuselage of a cargo plane the size of the Holland Tunnel, my face planted just inches from a small vent bearing the label: “Warning. High powered hot air exhaust door. Keep Out.”

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But normal went out the window – along with my white-collar job – with the plunge in the economy and the newspaper industry in which I worked. So instead of reporting about the economy’s woes, on this iced-over winter morning, I was one of its statistics: I was toiling as a “temp worker” – a part-time loader for the air freight operations of UPS.

They needed extra people to handle the holiday rush at their cargo hub in Des Moines. I needed some work. So I joined about 50 other guys, and a few women, to help the company and put a little cash in my pocket. And by little I mean under $10 an hour, with no benefits.

I was becoming what economists like to call a “waiter.” I was taking a job outside my normal sphere of expertise while waiting (I hoped) for something better to emerge. Every economic downturn – or even normal period – has its share of jobless people who take part-time work, both to help pay the grocery bill and to avoid starting to talk to the cat.

But this recession, because of its severity and length, is forcing an unusual number of people to look for a paycheck of any kind.

According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, the number of people classified as working part time “for economic reasons” nearly doubled from December 2007 to December 2008, hitting 8 million.

“There are a lot of people who say, ‘I can’t just sit. I’ve got bills to pay,’ ” says John Challenger, CEO of the Chicago-based outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas.

That was how I came to be trying to stay warm while hoisting frozen steaks, books, nine irons, and whatever else people were shipping around the country to put under their Christmas trees. The nature of this job meant we stood outside for hours come rain, shine, or ice pellets. But for the first time since college, I was getting dirt under my fingernails. I was happy.

•••

The first hurdle I had to pass on my new job loading cargo had nothing to do with brawn or brain. It had to do with the FBI. All of us workers at the airport had to go through a background check. The agency, apparently, found nothing alarming in my past or the years I worked in the newspaper business, which means they probably didn’t talk to any of my former editors.

My first week was spent in training, learning how to park planes – chocking the tires and placing orange traffic cones around the site – as well as how to load and unload cargo. We were also tutored on how to stay safe around some machines that weren’t Tonka Toys – tugs, hydraulic lifts, industrial forklifts.

Our task was to use those machines, and occasionally human muscle, to pull cargo containers from arriving planes. We then waited for the containers – cans, we called them – to be redirected. And I do mean wait. One old-timer advised us to bring books to read.

UPS had permanent, year-round workers who handled the five daily flights a day that came through Des Moines. But they bulked up with seasonal workers as Christmas – and 20 planes daily – approached. This was not skilled labor. From my vantage, it was more a test of man against the elements. The weather varied from cold to cryogenic. With the wind and snow added in, I felt like a bag of frozen peas.

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