To catch a chicken
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Note: This is the first in a two-part series. Listen to part two here.
The poultry industry needs people like Jimmy Nicks. A former chicken catcher, Jimmy used to head out to the farms, often at night, scoop up chickens by their legs and bring them back to the slaughterhouse for the next day’s processing.
If you take a look at Jimmy’s hands, there are calluses between his fingers where he would wedge two chickens at once. Sometimes he would hold up to 12 chickens in his hands.
Where Jimmy lives in Mississippi, about 20% of families live in poverty. The poultry sector drives much of the economy and provides thousands of jobs. But many of those workers are hired by the meat processors indirectly, which means they actually work for third-party staffing companies. As you’ll learn in this episode, these small, low-margin businesses take on a lot of the risks that the larger meat companies are shedding.
When Jimmy started out as a chicken catcher, he was employed by poultry processor Koch Foods, but that changed about a decade ago. The company started contracting out that part of its operation, and Jimmy went from being Koch’s employee to Koch’s “nonemployee.” Confusing? Yes. Jimmy found himself doing the same job for a new boss, but without the pay, protections and benefits he’d come to rely on.
In the first of a two-part series, we talk to Jimmy about the moment his employer changed, virtually overnight, as we explore this thing we used to call employment: what happened to it, why it happened and what this new kind of workforce means for the American dream.
For even more of “The Uncertain Hour,” subscribe to our newsletter! Each week we’ll bring you a note from host Krissy Clark and explain some terms that have come up in our reporting. This week’s phrase is “piece rate.”
Here’s additional reading and material we used in our research:
- “Digital Piecework” from Dissent Magazine
- “The Fissured Workplace” by David Weil
- “Scratching Out a Living” by Angela Stuesse
- Our episode from last season, where we looked at how chicken catchers are holding up in the pandemic.
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