First Time Work Kamping With Crop Duster Planes – Week 1

When Lee started looking for a job in June, he wanted to find something that didn’t deal directly with the public and mostly had weekends off.  I did some research for him and gave him multiple options, but he selected working at a small airport mixing chemicals and fueling crop dusting planes.  The job was in Minnesota (near our daughter), did not involve the public at all, and paid $15 an hour.  It also had weekends off although during the “busy season” he knew he would be working long hours and some weekends.

It sounded fine to me and we headed that way, ultimately arriving in Appleton, MN.  We received several phone calls along the way to make sure we were en route, and when we finally arrived at the campground the owner of the company came right over to meet us.  We were thrilled with our site at the campground and happy to be in one place for awhile.  The owner of the company told us that in previous years he had always hired college students, but when he lost several to graduation this year he decided to try work kampers.

Dealing with adults rather than college kids is certainly different, but he seemed open to the concept of work kampers and Lee and I both got a really good vibe from him.  Lee and I spent the next day getting oriented to the area (grocery store, hardware store etc) and then Monday morning Lee started working. Below is an account of how the first few days went.  As always, keep in mind experiences vary from person to person, so I will try to state things as factually as possible.  Value judgement as presented are Lee’s alone and may not mirror someone else’s experiences.

An Air Tractor crop duster.

 

Day 1 –  The first day Lee went into work, he was pleased that the office was large and well kept and the kitchen/break area was well stocked.  Everything was pretty new and nice and clean and tidy. The airport is only 1-1/2 miles from our campground, but since the schedule is variable we knew Lee would not always get home at the same time.  Thankfully our neighbor was also work kamping along with Lee, and since he had access to an extra vehicle from the company he was able to give Lee a ride each morning so I could have use of our truck. The first day started at 8am and since it rained and the planes couldn’t run much, Lee and the other new guy mainly learned the mixing and pumping systems and practiced mixing chemicals using colored water.

The job is essentially to mix specific types of chemicals (based on individual farmers work orders) and then pump those chemicals into the planes when they came into the hangar.  The planes also need fueled and windshields cleaned, etc. Because this is a fast paced business, it is a little like NASCAR where the “pit crew” gets the plane out as quickly as possible.  Unfortunately the process is not simple and there was definitely stumbling the first day.  There was some pressure to go faster, even in a practice environment, but Lee held firm that accuracy was more important than speed that first day. (I believe that it’s better to teach muscle memory correctly then build to speed rather than force speed and learn bad habits. Efficiency is both an art and a science. And I’m also deeply suspicious of any environment that creates artificial urgency and stress, especially for new people, as it benefits nobody and nothing. – Lee)

The environment is also no joke as these planes have live propellers that don’t stop spinning when they come into the hangar, and the chemicals being mixed and pumped are pesticides and fungicides and are extremely toxic.  A mistake costs not only time and money, but could also result in a serious injury.  When Lee came home at 5pm that first day he really wasn’t sure what to think.  He found the work itself interesting, but was having a hard time getting the process.  This was partly due to haphazard training and inconsistent instructions, but it was also due to the level of complexity, and Lee hoped the next day would be better in a live environment. At the end of the day he was told to return the next day at 8am. (Again, I am always very concerned when there is no documentation or formal training for a job. That says a LOT about the environment immediately. People put time and money into what they care about, and the opposite is also true. Something this complex and dangerous should have ample safety and other training. “Don’t get that stuff on you” is not training. Being taught y someone who arrived two months before you who is ALSO a work-kamper just leads to middle-man syndrome. But I also chalked most of the chaos up to the fact that the owner was used to working with college kids instead of adults (not sure why I thought that mattered) – Lee)

 

Boom with spray nozzles

Day 2 –  The second day it stopped raining and Lee knew it would be for real.  It was a bit of a stumbling effort getting into the pattern of filling the planes for real, and there was definitely more pressure to do it quickly.  Around 5:30pm Lee was told the crew was working until dark and one of the employees gave him a ham and cheese sandwich.  Lee knew that they would eventually be going long days but didn’t expect it to start immediately, on his second day, so he didn’t bring lunch and dinner.  Plus he didn’t have any goggles and by the end of the day his eyes were burning.  Whether that was from jet fuel exhaust or chemicals he didn’t know but when he finally got home at 9:30pm he reeked of something and his eyes were red and watery.  As tired as he was I made him take a shower before he came to bed, mainly because I didn’t want that stuff on his skin.  He was told before he left that they were starting the next day at 6am and we scrambled to figure out what food he could take that would work for the whole day.  Again he wasn’t sure how he felt about it.  There was lots of down time in between planes, but the lack of a plan and the physical impact were getting to him. (For me, this level of ambiguity in scheduling is a problem. To go from “It will be M-F during the day” to “It will be any time between dawn and nightfall plus weekends” is a pretty big jump. the jet fuel fumes were definitely a problem, and I was really unhappy that no goggles or respirator mask were provided. Again, these small things tell a lot about how an organization is run and what the priorities are. Someone who has been doing something for 40 years already knows that people should have masks and goggles. They’re not missing because of oversight. I specifically asked if personal protective equipment would be available in the phone interview, and was told that it would all be provided. – Lee)  

 

“Cones” used for mixing chemicals

 

Day 3 – The third day he got up at 4:45 and was out the door at 5:45am.  On one of my breaks in the morning I went to the local hardware store and bought the last pair of goggles.  Lee needed something to completely cover his eyes and by the time I got him the goggles he already had an abrasion of some kind.  It could have been a piece of metal, or grit, or really anything and I was glad I was able to get him the goggles for future protection.  The work was much easier on the third day though and they were turning planes in 4-6 minutes, which seems pretty fast for brand new people. Because only two planes are running currently they generally had a 20 minute break between planes.  This will change as more pilots are added, but for now the pace was manageable.  Unfortunately today was the day we learned that he would normally be working split shifts when they sent the crew home around 1pm.  Turns out the wind kicks up almost every day between 1pm and 5pm so most days they leave and come back and work 5pm until dark.  The problem was Lee was expecting to work long days and because he would be making overtime it was worth it.  Now he learned that the long days would not all be paid and he was “on call” during his down time.  Personally I had a big problem with that because it was definitely not communicated to us prior to him taking the job and it left us both wondering what other piece of news would happen next.  Still he decided to continue to work it out and see what came next. (This is a really big deal to me. A split shift is unpleasant and is the sort of thing, again, that should have been clearly communicated on the phone. Starting a day at 6am and working until 9:30pm with a break of unknown length in the middle makes for a VERY long day and if you’re not the napping type, which I’m not, you get tired pretty fast. – Lee)

 

Mixing chemicals in another vat mixer.

 

Day 4 – Once again Lee got up early and was onsite by 6am but this time he was prepared.  He had lots of food, was prepared for a long day, and the break that would probably come early in the day.  By 8:30 though the wind was strong and there was thunder and some rain.  Based on what had happened the previous day I expected Lee to come home, but instead they kept working.  The “work” consisted of following the owner around for 2-1/2 hours and having him talk about his plans,  but nothing else really happened.  To be clear at this point the work itself was completely fine with Lee but the arbitrary nature of the schedule was tough.  He understood that the weather dictated what they could do but the work was also based on how the owner was feeling that day.  To be fair this is pretty common in most small businesses, but most employees also have set hours and some level of job description.  Different people have different levels of job flexibility, but I think most people appreciate some kind of structure to work in.  Again, your mileage may vary on that, but the lack of structure seems to be a common theme with these seasonal jobs. Lee ultimately had to go back in at 5:00 pm but was let go again at 8:00 pm.

 

Fueling and pumping in chemicals

 

Day 5 – Lee started the morning again and they worked until noon.  At that point Lee was trying to get a feel for what was happening over the weekend, but not surprisingly no one wanted to commit.  When they ran out of work orders at noon, Lee really pressed the issue.  Finally the owner said they weren’t working the weekend and Lee left for the day around 12:30.  For the entire week he ended up with 40 hours RT and 8 hours OT which seems great, but he was essentially on call from 6:00am to 9:00 pm for three of five days. Keep in mind on call means on call.  No driving far away, no drinking, and no getting into anything that you couldn’t easily get out of.  Lee did manage to go to Walmart one day, but that was only a 25 mile drive and it was raining when he left.

So what do we think so far? Well, the owner was definitely not transparent about the downsides of the job, but Lee also didn’t ask the right questions.  Since the owner has only had college kids in the past he may not have known the types of questions we would ask, but I find it hard to believe that he wouldn’t think the split shifts would be a big deal.  From Lee’s perspective the long hours are fine (since he gets OT) but the stop and start nature of the work coupled with the long window he needs to be available is problematic.

He likes the work itself although there have been several potential safety issues.  To be fair the owner has largely addressed those as they were brought up, but since he has been doing this for a long time it is surprising they exist.  Again college kids might not notice or say anything, but an older person with grand kids and a wife would feel differently.  $830 gross per week is not a bad check, but there are limits to what we would do for that kind of money.

 

 


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