After the Season

Polish Carpentry Crew in Chicago

This year a group of Ukrainians with temporary work visas joined us at the orchard.

They were hard-working and fun to be around.

Their contracted wage far exceeds the $185 per month they can earn in Ukraine from their trained profession as English teachers. The visa sets a specific hourly rate of pay and the host is required to provide round trip transportation to Iowa plus housing. They can stay for up to eight months at a time. The Ukrainians went home to their families after the season, although each of them plans to return in a couple of months to help prune apple trees.

Saturday I drove to the orchard to pick up apple cider and frozen cherries. While there, the octogenarian friend who referred me showed up. We talked with the owners long enough for my spouse to wonder where I was. We ran through the usual topics —the hickory nut harvest, Gold Rush apples, cooking projects, which books we were reading, activities of mutual friends — and told jokes, usually one at the expense of another. It was a great conversation among friends.

We live in the same political precinct and have common political interests. We discussed the surprising plan to move the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem within a few years, and scuttlebutt about Democratic candidates considering a run to replace our state senator Bob Dvorsky when he retires at the end of 2018.

Multiple sources told me local internet personality Zach Wahls and former diplomat Janice Weiner are both kicking tires on a state senate run. I’ve not met either of them and it was news to my co-workers. While politically engaged, each of us has bigger fish to fry than politics.

The orchard sales barn will be open next weekend and that’s it for the year. I’ll need more cider… and conversation by then.

Everyone wants work that’s fairly paid. Once one accepts a work contract — agreeing to work for a wage — that usually ends discussion about compensation. We turn to our co-workers and the life we share in a place and time. If the job is any good we don’t talk about compensation, work hours, or much of anything but the idea of what we do and how to do it better. This has been the case most of my life in every job I’ve held.

At the home, farm and auto supply store we recognize it as lowly paid work, not just for hourly employees but for management. Yet we engage in work as a team and do our best to meet our goals. Employee turnover is high in retail and based on my experience compensation is not the driver. What matters more is it’s relatively easy to get retail work and if one keeps their nose clean and shows up, the employment and paycheck are predictable. A job easily secured is one easily left and that drives turnover. Our workplace is a stopping point for many people enroute to something else.

One of my colleagues was recruited from the sales floor to help check in freight during our busy season. We talk while working. Cognizant of his low wages, he said, “you get what you pay for,” indicating he would work harder if paid more. I’m not sure about that but didn’t tell him so. He is already a hard worker compared to others, and his income contributes to a household with his wife and two children. The job means something to him, but he’d leave it on short notice if a better one came along. We don’t talk much politics at work but he wears a stocking cap and coat with the word “Trump” screen-printed on them.

As my worklife winds down before taking “full retirement” next year, I value the people with whom I spend time. They are a diverse group and I hope to add something to our relationship before I go — remembering the past and living each moment to the fullest extent. These are stopping places, part of a long, personal journey that’s not over. As Robert Frost wrote in 1923, “I have miles to go before I sleep.”

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