His head resting in tattooed arms, Lamont Swift dozed off while the bus wheels rolled beneath him.
With only cornfields in sight out the window, the 40-year-old from Davenport caught half an hour of sleep before starting an eight-hour shift on his feet at Tyson Foods Inc. in Joslin, Illinois.
Swift had likened his job as a saw operator to something out of The Flintstones.
“I separate the ribs and rib eyes, and I take the spine bone off, and I take the eight-bone out, and I send it down the line,” Swift said. “The meat that I deal with looks like the meat from Flintstones — like the big triangle piece of meat, like a brontosaurus rib.”
The blade comes inches from his finger, “so it’s always safety first,” he said.
Swift started on the second shift at Tyson 10 months ago. He has no driver’s license, so the bus route is his only means of getting to work.
“Without this, I wouldn’t have a job out there, and I do like working out there,” he said. “It’s a good opportunity for people who want to work at least have a way to get to work.”
For Swift and many other Quad-Citians, work in the beef plant can be dangerous and taxing. But getting there is part of the battle.
MetroLINK, formally called the Rock Island County Metropolitan Mass Transit District, runs three buses to and from the Joslin plant every Monday through Friday and some weekends, based on ridership demand. Between 100 and 125 riders are shuttled to the plant a day, MetroLINK spokeswoman Jennifer Garrity said.
The transit-service provider began the route in the mid-1980s when the plant belonged to Iowa Beef Processors, now IBP Inc.
“There was a need they saw and approached us, and we agreed,” Garrity said.
Tyson officials say they appreciate the route.
“The MetroLINK bus route to Joslin is a reliable mode of transportation for our plant's team members, who would not otherwise have reliable transportation,” said Caroline Ahn, Tyson spokeswoman.
The Joslin route is the only one of MetroLINK’s 55 routes that serves a business outside the metro Quad-Cities.
“We’re all about getting people to jobs,” Garrity said. “It’s our mission.”
Fifty-two percent of MetroLINK’s daily ridership uses the transit service to get to a job, Garrity said.
Living with his wife and two dogs north of Kimberly Road, Swift leaves home at 11 a.m. and catches one Davenport CitiBus route downtown and another across the Centennial Bridge into Rock Island. He then hops on the 12:50 p.m. Joslin bus at MetroLINK’s District Station on 2nd Avenue, which gets him to work by 2 p.m.
After his shift, a bus leaves Tyson and drops Swift off around 2nd and Gaines streets, Davenport, and he arranges for a ride the rest of the way home.
“I like my freedom,” Swift said. “This is the best way.”
Eva Butler, who works in the kitchen at Tyson, has a car but prefers to ride the bus.
“Most of these people ride the bus because they do not have transportation to and from there,” the 51-year-old woman from Davenport said as she waited for her bus under a canopy at District Station.
“Me, I ride it because I do not like to drive that far, and it’s cheaper on gas,” she said.
A one-way ticket to Joslin costs $1.50. Bulk packages also are available at reduced rates.
Richard Brown, a 55-year-old convicted drug dealer, said a job at Tyson is helping him turn his life around. The bus is his only transportation.
“If you’re going to work, you’re going to get up and catch this bus,” he said.
Paroled in April after serving time in an Iowa prison on felony charges, Brown lives at the halfway house at 605 N. Main St., Davenport, as he transitions back into the community through a work release program.
“I was selling narcotics — living the fast life,” said the Chicago native who moved to the Quad-Cities nine years ago.
Although he found a position on Tyson’s kill floor, having “felony” by his name has been an obstacle to finding a job.
“It’s challenging for anyone with a criminal history, especially in this highly competitive job market,” said Waylyn McCulloh, district director of the Iowa Department of Corrections, which supervises 120 ex-offenders at the halfway house. “Employers can be selective.”
The halfway house has two offender employment specialists on staff to help ex-offenders find jobs. McCulloh said the Tyson plant has employed halfway house residents for years.
“The major deterrent to offenders from our programs working at Tyson has been transportation,” he said. “Many of our clients lack drivers’ licenses and reliable vehicles. Unless someone can transport him or he can find a carpooling situation with a coworker, it makes it difficult to travel the distance between our facility and Joslin. So, any time we can find an employer that has some type of organized transportation, that works well for us.”
Brown does not have a car, so the Joslin bus is “very convenient for me,” he said.
Tanya Lillard had a car, but it broke down six months ago.
“I can’t afford to buy a new car, so I have to take the bus,” the 53-year-old from Moline said.
A Tyson employee for 27 years, Lillard has grown fond of her latest commute.
“I love taking the bus to Tyson," she said. "I meet interesting people on the bus.”
Eric Davis said he knew the Joslin bus existed when he applied for a position at Tyson, but “I didn’t know what time I had to get up for it.”
Davis, a 22-year-old who lives in Moline and grew up in East Moline and Davenport, just graduated from Midwest Technical Institute. He started a week earlier at Tyson, his first job out of college.
“I’ve always been in school,” he said.
He hopes to save money for a car. “That’s the plan.”
After leaving District Station, the bus made a couple of stops but was mostly a straight shot the 23 miles to Joslin.
Multiple languages were spoken on the bus, including Spanish, Arabic and Swahili. One rider was texting on a cellphone in French.
Oliver Irakoze, 32, spoke Swahili as he described how he moved to Rock Island from the Democratic Republic of Congo earlier this year and found a job working at Tyson through a friend. He said he also speaks French fluently but could not communicate well in English.
Raska Dedovic, 58, who lives in Rock Island, said she moved to the United States from Bosnia 14 years ago, following conflict in her eastern European nation. “My country, problems,” she said.
The bus has been a convenient way for Dedovic to get to work, because she does not have a car.
“It’s nice,” she said, alternating between English and her native Bosnian language. “Bus every day will come back. I’m happy. Never problem.”
The plant has English translators, according to Ahn.
Amy Rowell, director of the World Relief office in Moline, which provides immigrant services and helps resettle refugees in the Quad-Cities, stressed the importance of immigrants learning English.
“We encourage everybody to learn English,” Rowell said. “For their success, it’s needed.”
She said all refugees moving to the area are enrolled in English as a Second Language class at Black Hawk College, Moline. The agency also has volunteer English language tutors who go to homes.
“Three things are really important — get a job, learn English and have American friends,” Rowell said.
Tyson has a long-established relationship with the Moline office of World Relief.
“If they have openings, they tell us, and we tell our people to apply,” Rowell said. “They go through the hiring process.”
“Agencies such as World Relief often contact our employment office about available positions and will work with individuals to submit applications through our recruiting website,” Ahn said.
“Part of what we do is to ensure they get employed, for sustainability and for self-sufficiency,” Rowell said. “We work really hard at getting them full-time work, and we have a great relationship with Tyson.”