Beneath the roof of a 500-foot chicken house, more than 17,000 birds wander in swaying waves of white. Outside, on the parched earth of Maryland's Eastern Shore, two tractor-trailers wait to haul them to the slaughterhouse. But the cages atop the trailers are empty. To fill them, chicken catchers are preparing to go to work.
A cigarette dangling from his lips, Henry Holden III rolls torn pantyhose up his arms to protect his skin. Dust, feathers and ammonia choke the air in the chicken house, and fans turn it into airborne sandpaper, rubbing skin raw.
Freddie Matthews, 45, pours corn starch into his calloused palms. He rubs it onto his neck and chest for protection against chafing, a pale paste forming against black skin. Then he adds a loop of rough brown paper, the sort that covers tables in crab houses. "You don't want that chafing."
As the modern poultry industry has grown into a multibillion-dollar enterprise, every component has been relentlessly remade. Chicken houses boast computers that control fans and curtains to regulate temperature. Biotechnology engineers disease-resistant birds. Yet one thing remains the same: When birds are ready for slaughter, people still go in and grab them by hand.
Across the Delmarva peninsula--shorthand for Delaware and the Eastern Shore of Maryland and Virginia--roughly 600 men work full time as chicken catchers.
This afternoon, Russell West enters first. West is "the houseman," meaning he works ahead of the rest of the crew, dividing the birds into manageable clusters. His boots sink into a squishy mix of manure and wood chips as he runs a tattered plastic sheet across the width of the house, dividing the flock in two. The birds protest. They beat their wings and bounce off one another and the walls.
West rattles a bleach bottle filled with pennies, shooing the birds where he wants them, a poultry matador. Then he surrounds a cluster with wire gates.
A forklift driver runs his machine, a Roanoke Chicken Hustler, through the doors at one end of the house, carrying an enormous fan to keep the birds cool. It whirs like a helicopter rotor, sending up clouds of detritus. Then the forklift backs out and returns with an empty cage, dropping it with a clatter.
"Gotta go eat that chicken dust now," Matthews says, as he steps into the pen and bends for the first of thousands of times that day.
Most of the crew wears gloves. Some use bare hands. They grab birds by their legs, thrusting them like sacks of laundry into the cages, sometimes applying a shove. In less than two minutes, 15 sections of the cages--the "drawers"--are filled, each packed with as many as 15 birds. The forklift returns to snatch the cage, loading it on the truck that will head to Mountaire Farms's slaughterhouse, then replaces it with an empty one.
The chicken catchers do not run or scramble. It is methodical, constant work, executed in rough and sour air, amid revving fans, the rattle and clang of cages. The farm is now a loading dock.
For two decades, companies have sought to replace catchers with machines. But the machines bruise and crush too many birds. The catchers remain as critically needed as ever. Theirs is a strange and largely unseen job. Sore muscles and irritated sinuses are common, but merit no sick leave. The vast majority of catchers are considered independent contractors and receive no company health benefits. On Delmarva, only Mountaire's catchers are employed directly by the company and receive benefits.
A survey released this year by the U.S. Department of Labor concluded that poultry companies routinely deny catchers overtime, prompting the department to sue on behalf of some 200 catchers.
Perdue Farms, the largest company on Delmarva, is one of five companies in four states named as defendants. Tyson, which also operates on Delmarva, also is named. Separately, Perdue faces an overtime lawsuit from more than 100 of its local catchers.
Poultry company executives note that catchers typically make substantially more than the average slaughterhouse worker: $300 to $800 a week. "Every job has its good points and its bad points," says David C. Tanner, human resources director for Mountaire. "They're making good money."
But many catchers complain their paychecks have stayed flat or shrunk over the last two decades as companies have consolidated.
Company executives counter that catching, although unpleasant, is decent work for good money. The proof, they say: People keep showing up. "Is there dust in these conditions? Yes," says Charles C. "Chick" Allen III, Allen's president, who used to catch chickens himself. "It's physical work. People know what it is when they do it."
In addition to full-time catchers, hundreds work as "hustlemen," for cash. Full-timers move from company to company, seeking a better deal, forcing crew leaders to round out crews on short notice with the freelancing hustlemen.
"If the money ain't right, you gonna bounce," says Wayne Bibins, 31, a 15-year veteran. As a teenager in Millsboro, Del., he started catching for "road trains," trucks from slaughterhouses in Pennsylvania. He has worked for four of the five companies on Delmarva: "All the same, no matter where you go."
Each plant dispatches catching teams. Crew leaders will get a few hours' notice from slaughterhouse supervisors on where to go that day. They may range north into Delaware, south into Virginia, or nearly as far west as the Chesapeake Bay Bridge.
The Mountaire crew has been working for less than an hour when Steve Collins, a round-faced man in a company polo shirt, pulls up. Collins is the assistant live haul manager. He supervises the catching, and he is accompanied by a young Latino.
For years, catching has been dominated by African Americans. But most companies are now bringing Latinos into the mix. As some older catchers see it, companies are trying to replace them with more pliant, cheaper workers.
"They used the slaves to build America, but now they don't need us no more," says John Williams, 43, a Townsends catcher. "They're threatening us with these Mexicans. Liable to put us back on the boat and send us back to Africa."
The companies say the trend toward Latino catchers merely reflects a shortage of workers. "I'm not trying to drive the wages down," Collins says. "I'm trying to get the product to the plant."
The trainee's neatly pressed shirt, blue jeans and new rubber boots stand out against the stained sweat shirts and torn footwear of the others. Collins holds up his hands and gestures with his fingers, hollering above the din.
"Three in this hand," he mouths, "four in this hand."
The Latino man nods. Then he reaches down. His arms disappear into a sea of chickens.
Ask a catcher how he wound up in the game and the story rarely follows a straight line. Most grasped for other lives but felt sucked back by the force of a bigger paycheck.
There's no shortage of plans to get out. But that's next week, or next year, after they make the last payment. Tonight, a chicken catcher can work one more shift and bring home $80 or $100. Chafing and getting pecked for hours is clearly a bad way to spend a lifetime, but what's one more night to a man who has endured thousands?
Andre Brown remembers making the odd trip out to a chicken house with his uncle, a catcher, when he was growing up near Princess Anne, Md. He collected the strays that evaded catchers on the first pass. His mother didn't like it.
She tells him the same these days. Andre and his brother, Terrill, are both chicken catchers.
"I tell 'em all the time, I would like them to get a better job," Mable Collins says. "All that ammonia. And everybody knows you can't get too much dust in your lungs. . . . Andre spits up mucous. Terrill was sick about a month ago for two or three weeks."
Last spring, Terrill lost a week of work from illness. With no money coming in to cover his rented room, he borrowed money, then worked double shifts for two weeks to repay the debt--days for Tyson Foods, nights for Perdue.
Terrill's hands "started to look like chicken claws," Andre says. The skin on his palms opened under the weight of the birds.
In Andre's mind, his is an accidental profession. He wanted to go to college, but family troubles forced him to work, he says. A dishwashing job paid too little, as did a stint shucking oysters in Crisfield--eight hours a day slicing got him about $150 a week.
Terrill was making twice that for Tyson. In November 1993, Andre went along as a hustleman somewhere in Virginia. Snow covered the ground. Inside, sweat and steam condensed against the walls. "I was tired, cramping up," Andre says. "I couldn't hardly breathe."
At the end of the night, he was $90 richer. Six years later, he's still catching.
One More Time
Cigarette smoke wafts through the vans in the lot of the Wawa in Millsboro, Del., the 24-hour convenience store that is the unofficial transit hub for catchers.
It is 2 a.m., about four hours before the first chickens will be sliced inside slaughterhouses. But the catchers are already emerging from the neon glow with Sno-Cones and cups of soup.
Chicken-catching was once exclusively a night activity. It's cooler then, and the birds are more docile. "Chickens are made to catch at night," says Jerome Johnson, 51, who has rounded up birds for 33 years. But the growing American appetite for chicken and export business to Asia and Eastern Europe spurred slaughterhouse shifts at nearly every hour, and the catchers have adjusted,too.
Doug Johnson, a 26-year-old crew leader for Townsends, has been out since midnight, picking up people from homes scattered across southern Delaware. Now he heads north and pulls up between two chicken houses with 27,000 birds outside Ellendale, Del.
Darkness adds an edge of danger to the catching. Two glowing red lights atop the forklift are the driver's only aid as he runs at high speed, then stops within inches of silhouettes. When the last cage lands atop the trailer about 9 a.m., the men filter into the day. Feathers cling to beards. A thick film of brown dust cakes clothing and faces.
"Them chickens look pretty nice in the store," says hustleman Joe Rock, sweat soaking his pants. "But they don't know what a man got to go through to get them."
A live hauler looking for extra hands interrupts. Another crew is short. Anyone want work?
A couple more hours. Another $50. "Gonna go catch me some more yellow legs," Joe Rock says.
CAPTION: Sylvester Mitchell, a chicken catcher, places the birds in steel cages to go to the processor. In less than two minutes, 15 sections of the cages--the "drawers"--are filled, each packed with as many as 15 birds. The forklift snatches the cage, loading it on the truck that will head to the slaughterhouse, then replaces it with an empty one.
CAPTION: Chicken catchers round up birds as they prepare to cage them and transport them by truck to the processing plant. When catchers arrive, poultry farms are transformed into loading docks.