For the past eight weeks, I have been an employee for an organization that helps below-grade level students catch up to their peers. The kids all come exclusively from low income families, and they get free one-on-one tutoring and this all goes down in a large city with a bad school system. Your mom would probably love me.
I volunteered at this organization through out college, and now I’m employeed there through the AmeriCorps Vista Program. I’ve sworn an oath to the Constitution and foregone my right to take on any paying second job (“We will find out if you are making extra money,” our administer warned, “and we will dismiss you. We had to do it last summer”). This was not my first choice—I’d have rather had a better-paying job—but I knew the work was important, I figured a living allowance, albeit one that nobody could specify before I signed up, would be enough. I’d have enough money to pay the bills. Maybe.
As it turns out, God and country is trumped by my desire for cold hard cash.
Shitty pay is making me a truly shitty employee. I know it, and I’m not proud of it, but I don’t lie about it. Still, people have a hard time believing that folks doing humanitarian work aren’t good people; they think I must be exaggerating when I say that I’m not working hard. But I solemnly swear I’ve been up to no good.
When I roll into the office, I regularly eat a pack of Cheez-Its or animal crackers. These prepackaged goods that I furtively indulge in are supposed to be a stopgap for youth hunger. Most days, I leave work in the middle of the day for about an hour or so. I’m going to Power Yoga. Equally important: getting a haircut in the middle of a weekday. When I sheepishly returned two hours later (looking fierce!), I decided I should stay at least an hour or so after five. I lasted 20 minutes. About once a week, I spend a whole day applying for jobs. Other days I leave work early. Some days I say I’m working from home, and then I don’t really work.
If you are appalled, that makes two of us. My work ethic matters to me, or I thought it did. It’s always been important to me to work my ass off and not to be a drain on society. For me that meant two jobs through college, sometimes more. But somehow at this job, that work ethic has escaped me. Every day is “the day I’m going to knuckle down.”
But it’s tricky not to lose focus at $6.80 an hour, and I confess, I feel entitled to a wage above that. Especially when the federal minimum is $7.25 per hour, and even more where I live. Compensation at the barest legal level might mean I could buy a beer every once and awhile. But is is the policy of AmeriCorps to pay at the poverty level, and I knew that when I signed on. My flat monthly wage assumes a 40 hour work week, so even my forty-ish hour weeks get paid the same. And last summer’s intern, who claimed to work 60 hour weeks, got the same paycheck as I do. As long as nobody’s complaining, I’m not going to really strive to hit the minimum, and I’m definitely not going above it.
As important as the work is, I don’t feel obligated to go above and beyond when there’s no carrot and stick. I’ve found that if you want my A game, you’ll need to pay for it.
Olga Rodriguez wants a carrot and stick.