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New book ‘Dirty Work’ reveals psychological toll of working unsavory jobs nobody wants

The cover of "Dirty Work: Essential Jobs and the Hidden Toll of Inequality in America," by Eyal Press.

When I hear the phrase “dirty work,” I think of garbage collectors or exterminators, but a new book called Dirty Work: Essential Jobs and the Hidden Toll of Inequality in America takes a deeper look at the jobs no one wants to do.

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“I’m talking about dirty in the ethical sense,” said the book’s author Eyal Press. “Jobs that require you to do morally troubling things. If you think of people who work on the kill floors of our industrial slaughterhouses where animals are killed under brutal conditions, or you think of working in the mental health ward of a prison, prisons being our largest mental health institutions.”

Press said these are jobs we rely on in our society. We expect inexpensive chicken at the grocery store, and we need someone to manage prison psych wards. But it’s work that is so morally disturbing, no one wants to do it, and more privileged people don’t even want to think about it.

“This is a book about inequality, and the burdens of doing dirty work fall on the less advantaged,” Press said. “Women, people of color, undocumented immigrants, people with fewer choices and opportunities, people in more depressed pockets and areas of the country.”

Workers are paid very little to do these unsavory jobs, but the book focuses more on the mental toll.

“I talked to the workers at this poultry slaughterhouse, they were all undocumented immigrants and it was so demeaning to work there,” Press said. “These were women who were denied bathroom breaks so some of them wore sanitary napkins to go to the bathroom as they worked. This kind of demeaning treatment, we don’t hear that much about it, but it is very much a part of our industrial food system and our society.”

In the book, he profiles Harriet, a woman who took a $12 an hour job as a mental health aide at a Florida prison.

“She quickly discovered that the patients entrusted to her care were getting abused,” Press said. “They were being denied meals, they were being verbally accosted, they were locking them in scalding showers. A man named Darren Rainey, a prisoner there, died in that shower. He sustained burns on 90% of his body. Harriet was there and she knows this has happened and she doesn’t say anything.”

No one said anything. Harriet learned right away that if you speak up, you’re treated badly by the prison guards. She spoke up once and the guards left her alone in the prison yard where she was inappropriately touched by an inmate.

“I talk about the awful, moral toll that took on her and on other people who work there. Harriet lost her appetite, she started losing her hair, actually when I met her she was wearing a wig. She fell into a depression, she was eventually diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder,” Press said. “She, both physically and emotionally, took on this burden of being implicated in the horrors she wasn’t saying anything about.”

Press also visited a small California town where most of the people who applied to be border control agents were Latino.

“Some of them actually had relatives who had been turned away at the border or had been in dangerous situations crossing the border. So why would someone do that job? They quoted a guy who was there and he said, ‘Look, this county has the highest unemployment in California, it’s the only good job around,'” Press said. “I call it the pressure of economic necessity that pushes people into doing things that may be uncomfortable for them. People with a lot of privilege don’t feel it.”

He says people like Harriet are seen as villains in our society, some people blame her for contributing to violence in prisons. The Hispanic border patrol agents are shamed for carrying out the country’s inhumane immigration policies. Press says Americans put the blame on these low paid individuals rather than their employers or the broken system.

Most of the dirty work in our country is hidden; prisons and slaughterhouses are literally behind fences and locked doors in rural areas. But Press says the COVID-19 pandemic forced us to acknowledge people who are now called “essential workers.”

“In the case of the medical responders and the doctors, people in New York City, where I live, stood on their stoops and clapped in gratitude every night for the work they were doing. And they should have been because it was heroic work,” Press said. “But nobody claps for people like Harriet; to the contrary. They’re stigmatized, they’re looked down on. That contrast is really, really striking to me.”

Press hopes his book will bring more awareness to the dirty work quietly happening in the shadows of our country.

Listen to Rachel Belle’s James Beard Award nominated podcast, “Your Last Meal.

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