Lessons from General Labor

An intern’s view
by Madai Montes

General Labor. What is general labor? It is essentially thought of as a job that “generally” anyone can do. It took me an entire summer of working as a temporary laborer (temp) at Lamb Weston to discover what a general laborer (GL) does to bring potatoes to the tables of hundreds of Americans each day. It’s not just a job; it’s a job that should be respected and revered. Not many can do it. It’s hard work dedicating eight hours to something you don’t want to do.

When the settlers settled in the west they planted their own fruits and vegetables and would spend the day catching or picking ingredients for their meals. Now, few have the time. For this reason we have farmers and GL’s to produce the food that the many Americans no longer plant and produce themselves. I feel that deserves appreciation.

The first day of work was a rush. I had no idea what to expect. After arriving 30 minutes early (as required), pulling my hair into a net, slipping into my rubber toed slip-ons, and covering my ears with green plugs, I walked toward the factory door. Once the door opened a gash of hot, humid, potato stench reached through my nose and made me forget my enthusiasm. The only thought running through my mind was “when is my next break?”

As a GL there are many stations where you may be placed. The stations I was placed in a little too often were trim line, recase, and sorter. Recase is where packages that were constructed/labeled incorrectly are sent. Here the workers empty out the product into huge bins that are then sent over to sorting once more. This was where I went my first day. Not too bad right? All I had to do was empty out bags into big totes. However, after four hours I was sweating from lifting 40 lb. bags continuously. That was only halfway through the workday! After eight hours of just opening bags and lifting boxes it starts to take a toll on you. I am fairly young, so I supposedly have this ability to work harder and longer than others. That myth is false. There were employees of 39 years who were working faster than I was. For the next few days I was placed in recase, and everyday I would return home sore and tired. Keep in mind; this station was only the beginning; and it was the station that I would beg to return to after being introduced to the other ones.

A few days later I was placed on the trim line. The trim line is a conveyor belt where you cut the defects out of potatoes with a huge blade that is laid across the belt. It’s much slower than recase, so I figured it would be easy. Sadly, I was wrong. The belt goes by at a fast speed and you have to keep up with the potatoes. Not to mention how loud and hot it is while you stand there sorting potatoes. There is no way to have a conversation with anyone while standing there. The first day, I got motion sickness after a few hours. I had to be sent home. I had no idea how people could just stand there every day and not feel sick. I was amazed at their ability to keep working.

I have this idea that maybe “general” labor doesn’t mean “generally” any one can do it. I think “general” means that you will work a variety of jobs that require labor in different aspects. Recase was difficult because it required long hours of physical activity. The trim line was difficult because it required long hours of standing in a hot, smelly, loud environment, which challenges your body in a different way. Sorter, which is where you stand and pick out defects on fries, creates the same challenge as the trim line. However, cold sorter is different. Cold sorter is when you stand inside the freezer to sort defective fries. Sometimes the problem is that it is too hot on the trim line. In cold storage; it is way too cold. Another challenge to your body. Fighting to find ways to keep yourself warm. Of course you wear a jacket and gloves, but it’s still pretty cold. After exposure to these new stations I decided that recase was the station I preferred. That wasn’t where I would spend most of my time, however. I spent most of my days on the trim line. I had to start taking a pill that some employees take when they are on the trim line. Dramamine, it is a motion sickness pill. It must be taken an hour before activity. That is what got me through a summer of GL. Dramamine.

After a few weeks of GL I started to catch the swing of things. It is at this point that my appreciation for GL grew.

There are many types of potatoes that I have been exposed to (of course they are not present in your potato bags because the line crew catches them and disposes of them). I had no idea there were so many different kinds. I have seen potatoes the size of baby heads, shaped like fat horseshoes, skinny and long like a fat thumb, the insides of potatoes that appeared as if the potato was bleeding, potato skins that were clear like jelly fish. Now, I can’t even eat a potato without looking extensively for defects, even French fries at McDonalds!

As mentioned before, the trim line is very loud. The whirring of the machines makes it difficult to hear anything. I might wear my ear buds in too tight for fear of losing my hearing, but I know when certain people are around. Take for example this adorable older lady, I can tell when she is around because she just loves to yell and talk even when no one can hear. The particular sound that is present when she speaks is all too familiar. I can hear her from a mile away. I admire her; she has been working as a GL for 39 years. She worked to help her children through school. Now her children are successful and she goes home happy everyday. She tends to bring that joy when she is present at work.Trying to find ways to entertain everyone around her.

It may be silly but there is a form of communication present at Lamb Weston that you begin to understand after a while. The hand signal for “break” is all too well known around the plant. The signal is simply the motion of breaking something by snapping it with your hands. There are other specific motions pertaining to different areas, but that is another story for another time.

There is no right way to get the attention of another worker. Sometimes the sound of “hey” is enough to get you to turn around. However, the other night, “hey” couldn’t break my deep concentration on the potatoes. A lady, attempting to grab my attention, began tossing potatoes down the line. For a minute there I just thought she had lost her mind and didn’t really know how to do her job. However, after four or five potato tosses I realized something was up. It was time for my break. The workers respect each others break times and do their best so that everyone can have their turn in regards to breaks.

There are so many nice people at the plant. I may be oblivious to it but I have not experienced any drama so far. The fact is that GL puts all of the workers on the same level. No matter what your background is, you have to do your job. Everyone is paid the same and does the same amount of work. This helps create a sense of family throughout the plant.

When I first became sick with motion sickness the ladies at the plant took very good care of me and offered me motion sickness pills, Sprite for my stomach, and proceeded to making me feel better. The managers, too, understand the physical needs of the employees. There are cold beverages and a nice temperature offered in the break room. There is a nurse present to make sure all employees are keeping themselves healthy. This is a common idea arond the plant; encouraging others to eat healthy, stretch, drink liquids, exercise and more.

Young mothers that I went to school with or older choose the night shift quite often. This way they can work while their children are sleeping, wake up the kids and take them to school and then catch up on sleep while the kids are at school. It’s a brilliant plan; managing work hours and still having family time.

The workers have their own ways of entertaining themselves, ranging from gossip, singing, counting, or in my case catching up on thinking about things I forgot to do throughout the day. Believe it or not the eight hours do go by quickly after you stop thinking about what time you leave.

The pay is rewarding. Starting salary is around $11/hour. The wages do increase after a while. You receive three breaks; one every two hours. I have heard that the insurance offered is not bad either. The working conditions are not bad; they are just difficult. However, that is the world of GL.

The other day I met a man who had been working for Lamb Weston for 38 years. After he suffered a stroke, he transferred to General Labor. He continues working harder than some of the younger workers to this day. He stays over from one shift to the next shift continuously. I have no idea how he does it.

That is his life. I have learned that no matter what, no matter what you do, there are people that make life worth living, work worth attending, and happiness spread. I met these people at Lamb Weston. Those who keep working, even while pregnant, with children, with other jobs, etc. They keep working for a reason. They have motivated me to work hard no matter where I go and appreciate the blessings that I have. They have encouraged me to never judge. People are different, but when placed in the same circumstances they work together and create something amazing. Laughter is very important, no matter where that laughter may take place. I appreciate those that took the time to make me laugh while at Lamb Weston.

I am fortunate enough to return to school this fall, but there are some that will work there up until retirement. They have no problem with this concept. To them Lamb Weston has set up a path of success for their kids and future generations. They have made a family within the GLs and are very satisfied with that. When a work environment becomes a family it is worth sticking around for.

I saw a new temp come in the other day; he had to leave early because he became sick to his stomach. Poor guy. He doesn’t know it yet, but he will soon be very used to the come and go that is working at Lamb Weston.


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