The coldest job in Tupelo

By Carlie Kollath/NEMS Daily Journal

TUPELO – It might be more than 100 degrees outside, but James Garner of Pontotoc bundles up when he goes to work. He dons a big winter coat, thick gloves, warm socks and a full-face ski mask to ward off the cold.
Even in a region stifled by excessive heat, someone still has to work in the freezer, which is set at minus 5 degrees, at SouthernBelle Refrigerated on North Commerce Street.
Garner is part of a small group of Tupelo workers who escape the high temperatures of the summer by working in cold environments or with cold items, such as ice.
The 12 employees at SouthernBelle spend their day unloading and loading food items that need to be frozen or refrigerated. The loading docks are about 40 degrees, the deep chill area for refrigerated food is 28 degrees and frozen food area is minus 5.
“It’s a nice place to work in the summer,” said Danny Miles, operation manager of SouthernBelle. “If you didn’t want to get hot, you wouldn’t have to. In the winter, it’s still a great place to work, but it’s a cold place to work. You can’t seem to get warm.”
Miles said the employees in the cold workplace have to “adapt and overcome.” They have uniform options of thick parkas, bib overalls, toboggans, neck gaiters, ski masks and gloves.
It’s up to them to decide what they need to stay warm, as long as they wear footwear with steel toes.
In the winter, the employees usually bundle up more than they do in the summer.
Michael Jones at Todd’s Big Star also spends his days in the cold. He’s the assistant market manager and works in the back with the meat, where the room is kept at about 45 degrees.
“It stays pretty comfortable,” Jones said.
He also ventures into a walk-in freezer throughout the day. The freezer is kept at about 30 degrees.
“It has its ups and downs,” Jones said. “On days like this, you kind of appreciate it.”
He stays warm at his job by wearing a white, long-sleeve butcher’s jacket and a full-length apron. In the winter, he adds a sweater.
Employees at Cube Ice, formerly Gardner-Watson, also spend their days in and out of freezers. They deliver ice to places including Walmart, furniture factories and most of the convenience stores in the area.
“We’ll be at a quick stop and, no joke, we’ll have five people come up and tell us, ‘We’ll y’all have got the coolest job,’” said Ryan Winter, the manager at Cube Ice in Tupelo. “If I had a nickel for every time I’ve heard that, I could have retired by now.”
The coldest freezer for ice deliveries is at Walgreens, Winter said.
“When we go in there and we’re sweating, it will freeze on our skin,” he said.
Since the Cube Ice workers are in the heat so much, they don’t bundle up. They usually wear short-sleeve T-shirts, shorts and sneakers while they load their truck full of ice.
And, they still sweat.
“Everyone thinks we have the coolest job, but we don’t,” Winter said. “When we are delivering ice, we’re soaking with sweat. … The coldest spot is in the back of the truck. When you open the doors, it’s cold for about five minutes, then it gets warm pretty quick.”
But, he’s still thankful for a job that gives him a reprieve from the summer’s heat.
“It’s a whole lot better than being in the sunshine, that’s for sure,” Winter said.
Every now and then, some of the cold water will splash on the workers and give them a welcome reprieve, Winter said.
But at SouthernBelle, moisture is the enemy. If the employees get sweaty or splashed by water while working outside, they have to change clothes, Miles said.
“We can’t ask someone who’s been outside in the heat with the grounds to come back inside and work in the cold,” Miles said. “You’re asking for pneumonia.”
Sickness is rare with the SouthernBelle employees, Miles said. The public expects his employees to always have a cold or the flu, but in reality, he said, absenteeism for those reasons is rare.
He suspects it’s because his employees have acclimated to the cold.
“It takes a special type of person to try to work at cold storage,” Miles said. “To get one employee to stick with you, you have to go through 10.”
And when they stay, they stay for a while. Garner has been with SouthernBelle for almost eight years. He said he doesn’t like cold weather outside, but he enjoys his job in the freezer.
“Once you get used to it, it’s not so bad,” Garner said.
His family, however, has taken issue with a side effect of his cold-storage job – his preference to keep the air conditioner set at 60 degrees.
But since he spends his days in an environment that stays below 40 degrees, the higher temperatures zap him.
Miles said his employees sometimes look like melting popsicles when they leave work to go out into the 100-degree heat.
The heat also takes a toll on the air-conditioning units at Southern Belle.
“They work so much harder trying to do what you want them to do,” Miles said. “You wouldn’t want to pay the power.”
Miles declined to say how much the monthly electric bill is, but compared the jump in the summer months to the increase many residential customers see.
“We probably are one of the better customers of Tupelo Water & Light,” he said with a smile.

Contact Carlie Kollath at (662) 678-1598 or carlie.kollath@djournal.com.