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I Worked a Manual Labor Job – This is What it Was Like

Finding a job is hard. That’s a huge understatement. So, manual labor is what I turned to for some cash and experience. This is the story of a job that transformed how I view myself and the others who do this for a living.

It all started when my life, and everyone else’s, was interrupted by COVID-19. Suddenly, I found myself at home in the middle of March, broke, and taking online classes. I was kind of relieved to be home for the rest of the semester because I’m a big homebody who was intensely missing my close-knit family, even though they only live 45 minutes away from my campus.

I realized that I didn’t want to just lounge around the house — I wanted to feel useful for once. So, I got a job as a “nursery team member” at a wickedly popular garden center in my hometown. At the interview, the store manager said that I would tend to the perennials outside in the sunshine, and it would be such a fun job— and yes, I believed her. 

I showed up gawky in ill-fitting jeans and the stiff company t-shirt they gave me. With my hair tightly pulled back in a ponytail and fresh New Balances, I felt like a wannabe farm girl. Quickly, it was clear that this wasn’t going to be a light job nurturing flowers and smelling the roses — I was just another field laborer. 

Right away, I was sent to the barn at the back of the plot to push tall plant racks uphill. Sweat started pouring out of my face and back, leaving very attractive sweat stains on my shirt for the rest of the day. Next, I would haul 50lb plants fresh out of the trucks and move them to the overhang, where I would shelve them all neatly to our management’s expectations. This became my routine every day since day one. And it didn’t get any easier.

Truck delivery days were the source of my nightmares, with the aches of my shoulders to remind me. Some days I would be hunched over the heavy potted daylilies, arranging them on the hot pebble beds scattered across the property. The sun burnt my face to a red crisp, and the strain on my already bad back got worse as time went on. But pushing through the pain was the only option because I didn’t want to give up and have a breakdown right there in the middle of work, even though I was already on the verge of doing so.

I worked alongside migrant workers from Guatemala, and they appreciated the broken Spanish I spoke (mostly aquí, which means “here”). They lived around the block from the garden center, all crammed together in an apartment complex. I learned everyone’s names and made them laugh with my quip of being “muy pequeña” (very short). However, the language barrier did prove to be challenging, and I regretfully never got to learn who they truly were and how they ended up here.

The only females doing manual labor in the fields were just me and my manager. She was a badass woman who drove forklifts and four-wheelers and commanded the whole fleet of workers. Hard-working and blunt, yet she was patient and instructive with me trying to learn the basics of practical field skills. She is one of the few things I would miss from this job.

Every day I came home exhausted. I would scarf down something to eat and then limp to the shower to wash the dirt and sweat off. My nails were caked underneath with dirt, which was impossible to get out with less than five hand washes. Even when I would blow my nose, black dirt was the only thing that came out (I know, TMI).

Working eight to nine hours in the hot sun and doing physically hard labor kicked my ass. Some days as soon as I plopped into my mom’s car, I would immediately burst into tears. But my mom would remind me that this was temporary, while my co-workers who fled their countries or only had a high school degree to their name would have to do this kind of work for the rest of their careers. My respect for them grew immensely with each passing day — these are hardy, tough people who dedicate their lives to back-breaking work day in and day out. Some did it because it was the only option, the only thing that they could turn to for income. Some did it because they were passionate about plants and being true leaders, like my manager.

Three months went by both slowly and quickly, and I felt strong. I could feel my muscles working overtime — lifting heavy objects had done the trick. My body felt thicker in a good way: I was meaty and sturdy, and I did not miss the gangly arms and legs I left behind. One of the few delights I partook in on the job was learning how to drive a four-wheeler, where I enjoyed slamming the gas at full speed to the back of the acre to pick up more plants.

The pain, tears, and stress were all worth it each time I saw my paycheck. With the crazy amount of hours I worked came an influx of cash I was not used to. This was the first time in my life that I had earned valuable money with my hard work. This is money not from birthdays or parents or petty cash: this was my hard-earned money. That felt empowering. Another check on my list for life independence.

Before this job, I felt useless, without a purpose and lacking inspiration and independence. Now, I find myself seeking ways to actively do something to better my environment and the environment of the people I love. Whether feeling motivated enough to clean up my surroundings or taking the time to push myself to train for tennis, I’m starting to feel really useful for the first time in my life. I’ve always felt like a burden who wastes the days away watching TV on the couch. While I do still love to watch TV on the couch, I have learned how precious the hours of each day are. With each hour that passes, there is an opportunity to do something new and nourishing. Whenever times get tough, I can remember how rough life used to be for me and how it won’t end for the co-workers I left behind.

So, thank you, manual labor, for teaching me the value of a dollar and giving me strength in body and mind. And the cash, too.

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Jenna Wilson

Oswego '22

Jenna is a junior at SUNY Oswego majoring in Mass Communications and aiming for a Master's in Strategic Communications. Planning on working as a creative/art director, she’s also dreaming of yet another trip to Disney World. Jenna is also an avid lover of reality television, 90s music, and most of all, her family (and Bostons).
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