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This Book Introduces You To The People Doing Your 'Dirty Work'

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Who is doing your dirty work? Many of us have no idea, and writer Eyal Press wants to change that.

"Dirty work is work that society in a sense depends on and tacitly condones but doesn't want to hear too much about and certainly doesn't want to see," he explains.

For his new book, Dirty Work, Press interviewed people working punishingly difficult jobs — slaughterhouse employees, correctional officers, oil rig workers, military drone operators. He writes that these workers often do jobs that many of us believe we benefit from — in the form of lower prices, safer streets or cheaper energy — but don't really want to think about.

"Dirty work" tends to fall to people with fewer opportunities, Press writes. And when we hear about ill effects associated with these jobs — such asCOVID-19 outbreaks in poultry slaughterhouses or inhumane treatment of incarcerated people — we often condemn the workers rather than the exploitative system that employs them.

The COVID-19 pandemic put a spotlight on essential workers, such as people employed in the health care, transit, sanitation and food industries. But Press says that this awareness doesn't extend to people doing "dirty" jobs. There's "an even more hidden class of workers who do these morally troubling things that are pretty central to our society," he says. "This is a moment where we're all thinking about how workers who are hidden and who pay the price — both physically and emotionally and in other ways — how we depend on them."

Interview Highlights

On Harriet, a mental health aide working in a Florida prison making $12 an hour

Harriet got a job as a mental health aide at the Dade Correctional Institution in Florida, just south of Miami, shortly after the Great Recession. She had never worked in corrections before, really didn't know what to expect. As she started working the job, she began hearing stories about patients entrusted to her care ... being mistreated.

Some of them complained that they weren't getting food. Their meals were being skipped. She witnessed verbal abuse that concerned her. And gradually she learned that this abuse was both systemic and severe. ...

What do you do if you're a mental health aide at a prison like that, when on the one hand, your job is to care for the patients, on the other hand, you're beholden to the security at the facility? ...

At the very beginning, Harriet did want to help people, but she also just needed a job, and she was frank with me about the fact that if she could have gotten another job she would have. And that's kind of a theme in the book — that these are sort of jobs of last resort. They're not aspirational positions. ...

[Harriet] stopped eating. She lost her appetite. She started losing her hair. She became depressed. She didn't tell anyone what she was going through. ... But she just really fell into a psychic malaise and later, much later, would be diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder from the kind of psychic and emotional toll that this took on her.

On people taking correctional jobs because they don't have better options

In my interviews and in the literature on corrections officers, what you find in many places is that they feel, "Boy, I wish I could have been a cop or a firefighter. I'm doing this job because I get benefits. And that's the only reason," or "I'm doing this job because I don't want to do a job that is temporary and I can't support my family."

But certainly the studies suggest this is, again, not a career that people aspire to have. It's a job they end up doing after a kind of period of occupational drift or because they have few other better choices. And I should say that the geography of prisons and jails in this country sort of helps reinforce that. Many of the prisons and jails in the United States have been built in more low-income rural areas where the good jobs that used to exist — the mills and factories — shut down. So what replaced them? Jails and prisons.

On the psychic and physical toll of working in a prison

If you look at the occupational health literature on prison guards, you have alarming rates of hypertension, of divorce, depression, substance abuse, suicide. ...

[I] talked to a woman who ended up setting up a mental health hotline and then a kind of outreach center. ... She kept getting calls from the partners of corrections officers in this area of Colorado that is just full of prisons and jails saying, "I'm concerned about my partner."

And she got so many of these calls — and her own background was in treating trauma victims — that she thought, this is a traumatic job. This is a really high-risk, potentially traumatizing job. So I think what's really difficult is to measure and quantify the kinds of psychic and emotional wounds that doing a job like this has. But that doesn't mean those wounds are not there, and it doesn't mean they're not debilitating.

On drone operators engaged in remote combat

Chris Aaron, who's one of the former drone operators I write about at length, he was someone who, after Sept. 11, felt a streak of idealism kind of derived from his grandfather who had served in World War II. He said, "I want to go serve my country." He ends up very early on helping out and working on the drone program.

In the beginning, he doesn't feel very conflicted about what he's doing. What he remembered and what he described was the sort of exhilaration and a sense of, "We got a high target, high-five!" There's just the sense that we're getting the bad guys.

And then ... Chris starts to have a physical breakdown. He's a very fit guy. ... He starts to develop skin welts and feel sick and just feel weak. He can't get out of bed. ... He becomes depressed, lifeless. And he was this incredibly strikingly vigorous person. And it's at this point, as he's sort of going through all of this, that he's realizing he's starting to question what he's doing.

On the unique stresses of remote combat

What we're learning is that intelligence analysts and officers who are involved and sitting in what are called "remote combat operations" are actually seeing graphic violence, homes destroyed, villages bombed, bodies burned, more than even special forces on the ground.

I think in the beginning there was this sort of assumption that folks in those situations, because they're sitting at a desk and they're distant, that this is like playing a video game — what's the big deal? It would foster what one person called a "PlayStation mentality" to killing, which is its own concern and indeed was the concern among critics of drones.

But what the military is finding ... is that a lot of folks are experiencing grief and sadness and what are called negative disruptive emotions really intensely.

On the anonymity of remote combat

One former Marine in particular, it struck me when he said, when you're on the ground, there's a esprit de corps — you're fighting for your fellow soldiers and you feel that camaraderie.

People who serve in combat missions on the ground, there's a valor to that. That's the traditional heroic narrative we tell about war — people risking and sacrificing, facing the enemy. What happens when you kill but you are not facing those risks and danger?

Here, the operators are getting in their cars afterwards and driving home, often alone, to a society that has kind of forgotten that we are fighting these wars. ... It speaks to how disengaged as a society we've become from the wars that are fought in our name. ...

People who serve in combat missions on the ground, there's a valor to that. That's the traditional heroic narrative we tell about war — people risking and sacrificing, facing the enemy. What happens when you kill but you are not facing those risks and danger?

I don't think it's an accident that when the military tried to introduce a kind of valor medal for drone operators, some within the military mocked it as a kind of Nintendo medal, which suggests, hey, why should we give a medal to people who haven't put their lives on the line? And yet, as a society, we have come to do a lot of this drone warfare because we don't want the sacrifice.

Thea Chaloner and Sam Briger produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Molly Seavy-Nesper and Beth Novey adapted it for the web.

Copyright 2021 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Dave Davies is a guest host for NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross.