MEANWHILE, IN THE OTHER SOUTH
Route 64 is no Interstate 85. As the two-lane road rolls into Siler City, N.C., the skyline is dotted with burger stands and car dealerships, not gleaming glass-and-steel office buildings.
This is chicken country, an hour or so west--and a world away--from Research Triangle Park. Siler City enjoys an unemployment rate of only 3.2%, thanks to the chicken processing plants owned by Townsends Inc. and Showell Farms' Mid-State Farms. Overall, the Southeast accounts for 50% of the $20 billion U.S. chicken industry, employing 125,000 workers across the region.
Poultry prosperity is a mixed blessing, though. Injury and illness rates for poultry workers are double the rates
of manufacturing generally, according to the Labor Dept. And new technology is used to reduce stress for chickens--to make their meat more tender--rather than for workers. "The industry has one foot in the 21st century when it comes to chickens, but they left one foot back in the 19th century when it comes to people," says Bob Hall, research director of the Institute for Southern Studies, a labor-funded advocacy group in Durham, N.C.
BLOOD 'N' GUTS. James C. Walston, Townsends' vice-president for human resources, defends his Siler City plant's record, noting that it has hired a registered nurse and launched an ergonomics program. "We recognize that we need as much prevention as we can get," he says. Donald Schaeffer, Showell Farms' vice-president for human resources, says similar steps at his company haven't cut the injury rates, but "the injuries are far less serious because we catch them earlier."
Conditions on the production line can be tough. Repetitive motion from such tasks as pulling out chicken guts can cause disabling injuries. Employees frequently spend shifts in either a freezing cooler or 95F heat. Conditions can be so crowded that blood from a chicken one worker handles can sometimes splash onto a co-worker. The line speed--up to 90 chickens a minute--is double the rate a decade ago.
With little schooling, workers in towns such as Siler City, population 5,000, have few other job choices. "If I could go back, I would," says William Goldston, 41, who worked at Mid-State until he developed carpal-tunnel qyndrome. "What else can I do? I don't got no education, and nothing else pays like the chicken plant."
Siler City Manager Leonard Barefoot calls the chicken industry "a great asset," but he wants to attract jobs that offer more than the $6.50-an-hour maximum that poultry pays. The problem is that compared with other parts of the state, "we don't have as developed a work force," says Barefoot. With consumer demand for chicken still rising, towns such as Siler City will increasingly depend on poultry employment. And the clean, well-paying jobs will end up elsewhere--usually near I-85. Jennifer Toth in Siler City, N.C.