LIMA — When the cookie tops and bottoms come out of the oven, Nucosha Robertson takes them from a conveyor belt and puts them in a machine that adds the creme center and makes the sandwich and then she sets them in plastic trays, making sure none is broken. Robertson does this all shift long, save for two 10-minute breaks and a 25-minute lunch.Robertson, 24, of Lima, makes less than $9 an hour through a temp service for Consolidated Biscuit in McComb. A little more than the first hour of each of her days is dedicated to paying Pyramid Staffing $10 in gas money, $5 up and $5 back, for the bus ride the company provides to and from Lima's downtown and “the cookie factory,” as so many know it.While Robertson's shift doesn't start until 2 p.m., she's at the bus, a white, 1991 Blue Bird school bus (complete with high green seats and rectangular windows that can pull down) by noon. It leaves from just south of Town Square at 12:30 p.m., heads to Findlay to pick up a couple of other folks, and arrives in McComb by 1:45 p.m. Robertson's shift will end at 10 p.m., and she'll have the same routine, in reverse. It will be midnight or later when she returns home to her 4-year-old daughter, tucked into bed by someone else.“It's a decent job, it's just the drive is kind of far. You work eight hours, but it's a 12-hour day. But I like it. I'm a busy person; I like to be busy. It makes the time go fast,” Robertson said. “I don't go after overtime. I try to keep my weekends for my daughter.”For some people, giving 12 hours of a day for an 8-hour shift of standing while completing constant and repetitive tasks, paying an employer for transportation, working for a dollar more than minimum wage so far from home, would be unthinkable. For the people on this bus, that job is many things: a pay raise from previous work; a paycheck after unemployment; a sufficient, if not pleasant or particularly fulfilling, way to pay the bills and feed a family; some form of income on the way to a better life; a blessing.A blessing is just how John Moore, 56, of Lima, describes his job as a mixer. The work, much more physical than a line job, includes lifting and dumping 50- and 100-pound bags of ingredients to make dough. But it also pays more. And, the job has one more advantage; mixers are more likely to get hired in as full-time company employees, not temp contractors. Because that's Moore's goal, he makes himself available for work often. He had just worked a first shift and was heading home to shower, shave, eat dinner and rest for a couple of hours. Then he planned to catch the 8 p.m. bus back to McComb. There he would wait in the break room to see if anyone needed a “filler,” cookie factory speak for an open spot, extra work. If no filler was needed, Moore planned to wait in the break room until his shift started at 5 a.m.Prayer and meditation is a part of every day. He finds time for a special friend by the name of Rosemary, and his dog Striker, a black Labrador retriever.“I'm a spiritual man. I pray about how far I've come, that the Lord continues to keep me on a straight and narrow path, keeps me spiritual minded. I don't ever want to stray again. Back when I was younger, I had my share of trouble. I put it behind me and never looked back. I'm 56 years old. There's nothing on the streets for me. What I want is right here,” Moore said, thumbing back toward the plant, “and that's a job.”Lima's unemployment rate is 10 percent; Allen County's is about a percentage point less. Many of the people who ride this day talk of the difficulty of finding any work, let alone better-paying work, closer to home. Some hint at racism keeping them from other employment. Others are simply thankful for the work.“It's really good, especially if you don't have a car or license. Employment's not anything in Lima. It gives people an opportunity to work,” said Lori Holmes, 33, of Lima.Consolidated Biscuit, which began operating in 1963, is now owned by Illinois company Hearthside Food Solutions, which operates 13 manufacturing plants in six states. Employees make snacks, cookies, crackers and fruit bars for Nabisco, Kraft, and other off brands and store brands. The company has fought several attempts of employees in recent years to form a union with the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers International union. Employees on the bus say they don't know about that, and don't think any kind of union organizing would affect them anyway.Bus driver Josh Longbrake, 35, of Columbus Grove, has a two-liter bottle of Mountain Dew at the ready. He's nearing the end of his day that began with waking at 3 a.m. By 4, he was in Lima and leaving the square by 4:30 to get a bus load of folks to McComb for the 6 a.m. first shift. For a bit in the middle of the morning, he goes home and rests. Then it's back to the square to handle second shift, taking a group and bringing back those first-shifters. Above Longbrake on the bus's interior wall, reads a sign, “Your Children's SAFETY is our Business.”The bus rumbles along Interstate 75, as if it's carrying a group of grade-schoolers to a field trip. But there are no high-pitched antics on this trip. People mostly sleep. Others text and play games on their phones, or listen to music. Robertson works a word search. Danika Gilmore, 20, and a friend, a young woman wearing slippers who will later change into tennis shoes, carry on the bus's only conversation. Every now and then, above the wind through the windows and the hum of the engine, you hear a “Girl! I was like ...”The bus pulls through Findlay, and then back out into the country, past farmers cultivating their fields and the McComb school and football field along Panther Parkway. Consolidated Biscuit sits at the dead end of a residential street, and the smell of cookies baking hits you just as the plant comes into view.Gilmore makes $8.70 an hour as a packer on a line. The job is easy enough, she said. She's not sure what product she usually packages; it seems to be of no consequence to her. She's a nursing student at Rhodes State College, but with a three-year waiting list for nursing classes, she's taking her general coursework first.Workers say they don't mind paying gas money to Pyramid, which recruits for another staffing company, Impact Employment Solutions, that works more directly with Consolidated Biscuit. They figure, with the way gas prices are, they might not be able to drive to McComb and back for $10 a day. Many people say they don't own cars, others say the car isn't reliable enough to make the 35-mile drive each day. Some don't have licenses. Others like not worrying about winter weather. If the bus is late, one employee says, workers aren't punished for it. They're not paid for the time they miss, but they also don't accumulate a point. Too many points leads to a firing.At $3.50 a gallon, it would cost $210 to fill up a 60-gallon tank, typical for a school bus. The bus makes three round-trips between Lima and McComb. Sometimes, the bus carries few, as it did this afternoon, with six passengers, at $5 each, $30. Sometimes, the bus has upwards of 25 or 35 people, $125 or more each trip. Longbrake, the driver, takes a good ribbing from his afternoon passengers, including Holmes. She is training to be a machine operator, someone who makes sure the lines and equipment work properly. The teasing is good-natured; Holmes said Longbrake is a fine driver, one that she trusts enough to doze on the way home.“Me, I just go with the flow,” she said while grabbing a smoke before heading home.The wait is a long one. Even though her shift ended at 2 p.m., she and others wait on the bus nearly an hour as Longbrake is unsure if he has everyone he's supposed to take home.The group on the way home is chatty and animated for a bit, with usual fleeting gripes of work and co-workers. But the day that began about 4 a.m. takes its toll, and soon most are asleep, heads slumped in those high-backed seats or bumping along against the window.Back in Lima, Holmes gathers her things, climbs down the bus stairs into the late afternoon sunshine and gives Longbrake a quick wave: “See you in the morning.”
Tara Cutlip, 21 and pregnant with her second child, was shot and killed Saturday in her Bahama Drive home. Loved ones gather in front of Tara's home to remember her and speak out against domestic violence.