The hearing was already over when Karen, my hearing monitor asked, “How do they get them in the crate with four in one hand and three in the other?”
I didn't know and forgot to ask. I summoned his attorney, who asked his client.
“Well Judge, see, two of 'em work as a team. One opens the crate, the other stuffs the chickens in.”
It had been a long and difficult hearing for a fellow from deep in the Boot Heel of Missouri. He had worked sporadically at a lot of different agricultural labor jobs. His longest employment was four years full-time as a chicken catcher on a big poultry operation. I questioned him pretty carefully on how he did this job because I knew it to be very physically demanding. I wanted my vocational expert to understand it clearly. I wasn't entirely sure she was all that familiar with the poultry business.
Commercial chickens intended for meat are generally raised in long metal buildings that each hold hundreds of birds of the same age. When they are large enough to be processed someone has to go in, catch them, crate them and put the crates on a truck. That, in a nutshell, is what chicken catchers do.
This is about the smelliest, most dirty, dusty and hot work available. In many ways it is also one of the most brutal. Animal rights folks often describe commercial chicken farming as one of the most objectionable types of farm animal cruelty due in part to how chicken catching is done.
For my purposes, I had to find out exactly what sort of physical abilities are required to be a professional chicken catcher. Only in this way could I decide if the claimant could theoretically return to that work. So I took a deep breath and asked.
On the farm where the claimant worked he and another guy would herd the chickens against the walls or into a corner then grab them by their necks. He said he would get four at a time in his right hand then three more in his left before stuffing them in the crate. After four trips, the crate was jammed with 28 chickens. They would load that crate onto the truck and go back for more. Eight hours later the chickens were gone and they went home.
After he finished testifying about the other jobs he held, I asked the vocational expert if she needed me to ask any further questions about any of the jobs.
“Just about the chicken catcher job, Judge.”
“OK, what do you need to know?”
“He said he typically carried seven chickens at a time. I need to know how heavy the average chicken is. I'm thinking about 3 pounds.”
I immediately knew where she was going. If each chicken weighs 3 pounds, then 7 chickens weigh 21 pounds and the job would be classified as light work. If the chickens weigh more, then it's medium work. I knew that it was in fact heavy work because of the weight of crates full of chickens, but I had failed to ask those questions.
“OK, sir, how much do you think those chickens weighed on average?”
“I don't exactly know, Judge. I expect about 5 pounds.”
“That's about what I was thinking. Ms. Expert, how does that sound to you?”
“OK, I've got it. I guess I was thinking of the chickens without their hair.”
Everybody in court looked up suddenly. There was a split second of stunned silence before the claimant burst out laughing.
“I meant feathers!” the vocational expert sputtered, too late.
We all roared.