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.
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.”
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.
Most of my co-workers were farmers or outdoorsmen, so they had appropriate clothes. I, Mr. Cubicle Occupant, was light in that department. So I blew about two weeks’ pay on my new “uniform”:
• Bottom: briefs, long johns, jeans, and a pair of rain pants that double as windbreakers.
• Top: T-shirt, moisture-wicking undershirt, button-down shirt, pullover fleece with hood, Arctic-grade winter coat.
• Accompaniments: ear band, pullover face mask, heavy-duty mittens, airtight head covering, leather hiking boots, wool socks.
We looked like a squad of Michelin men. To help us push around 3,000 pound cans, even in our moon suits, UPS uses some ingenious aids – notably ball bearings. Engineers would blanket the floors of the aircraft with tiny steel balls so we could move the lumbering containers along to outside lifts.
The good news: With just a push of the hand, the heavy bins could be spun around and sent down the cargo hold as easily as a curling rock. The bad news: It could be treacherous to walk. I’m proud to say I don’t recall falling once. It was more like three times. At certain moments, I felt as if I was in a Steve Martin movie.
Thankfully, machinery did most of the work. We helped it out, lifting or removing metal locks (when they weren’t frozen) that secured cans into the plane, or onto dollies that hauled them to the sorting facility. Our crew of eight to 10 people could unload a 757 in about 30 minutes.
Loading planes took far longer. We often had to wait for cans coming in from other flights or on trucks. This made for a lot of idle time, to talk about football, or “My Name Is Earl,” or sometimes kids. Everybody knew that seasonals would soon to be gone, and even the permanents were there only 15 to 20 hours a week. So we conversed with a sort of unwritten code: friendly, but not in a way of becoming close.
Some of the seasonals were recent retirees. A few, like me, had been laid off from other jobs. We didn’t talk much about where we came from, except for one guy, who was a retiree. He had been a jailer. He also was a gun buff. So I learned about weaponry and ammunition, and I picked up some pointers on pressure points to use when subduing surly drunks.
One younger guy clearly saw this temporary job as a path to becoming a UPS delivery man. The people who cruise around town in the boxy brown trucks make good wages, I was told. But they all started at lowly tasks such as loading.
Our job settled into a meteorological version of the movie Groundhog Day.
My first task each morning was to turn on the TV and watch the weather. Proper knowledge made for proper dressing, though I kept a suitcase filled with backup clothes in my car, just in case the temperature turned particularly churlish.
Certainly this job was far less complicated than the reporting-editing job I had come from. It was also far less pay.
But my wife said I came home much happier every night, not carrying a knapsack of complaints about the decline of the newspaper industry or the rise of copyediting errors.
And so it went, day in, day out, until, finally, Dec. 24. By 3 p.m., I finished work on my plane and headed into the maintenance building. My job was done.
I said goodbye to a couple of guys, both permanent and temporary workers. Some had already landed other jobs. One guy was delivering pizza. Another was cleaning airplanes parked overnight elsewhere at the airport.
Other seasonals just drifted away, to begin the job hunt anew. That included me. As I reflected on the experience on the way home, I couldn’t quite be sure what I had learned beyond how to load cargo planes. Maybe I was just making a clean break with the past. Or maybe, as Mr. Challenger says, I was just trying to avoid
going buggy while I looked for something else.
At the least, I figured out that I wasn’t too proud to get my hands dirty. For that I felt good.
Cold, but good.