Looking at Pay Fairness Through Jobs I’ve Had
Summer 2008 – Oyster Farmer in Maine
When I came home for the summer during college, I would work for an oyster farmer named Carol whom I’d met through a family friend. So after graduating, having nothing else to do and nowhere else to be, I worked for her three or four days a week. The work wasn’t very hard, but there’s a basic minimum of experience needed just to stay safe, let alone to get work done. When I’d started working for Carol three summers earlier, she paid me $10 an hour, which I think is a pretty standard starting wage at a very small business. But by that summer, she was paying me $14 an hour, because I could go out on the river by myself. At the time, $14 felt unreasonable. This wasn’t a job that demanded any sort of academic or professional achievement, or any special skills, or talents. Over the course of a six-month apprenticeship, spread out over three summers, I’d learned enough to be able to flip a row of traps without falling in the river. Was that really worth $14 an hour?
I’m sure that the bulk of my skepticism was related to the rest of my financial and social situation. I was lucky enough not to have had to take out loans to pay for college (my parents on their own wouldn’t have been able to cover me, but my grandfather had put a fund aside that just barely paid for it) and I was home that summer, with the attendant freedom from rent, bills, and other financial obligations. In the absence of things to buy, even $14 an hour adds up quickly. I was accumulating money without working very hard, so clearly something was wrong with the system; and not realizing yet that it wasn’t my pay but my expenses that were anomalous, I assumed that somewhere, a mistake had been made. After all, I would have been willing to do the work for $10 an hour. Where was this market efficiency I kept hearing about?
Of course, the pay made sense if I really thought about the variables that it reflected. I was young, reliable, and basically competent in a place where there just weren’t many people who fit that bill. If I hadn’t been willing to work for Carol because the pay was too low, she would have had a tough time finding a replacement, and there was a seasonal imperative to the work, which couldn’t be put off while she searched for help. In rural Maine, she couldn’t take the risk that I would leave. And because the finances of the business were so excruciatingly simple (money from selling oysters = revenue; labor + rent + gasoline = expenses; revenue – expenses = profit), she couldn’t possibly have been paying me more than my work was worth, even if she could have paid me less—that is, she couldn’t have been losing money because she was paying me $14 an hour.
There was probably a social component too: She was willing to pay me more because she liked working with me, and ironically, I would also have been willing to work for lower pay because I liked working with her. It would have been nice to have sat down and had a totally honest conversation about the amount of money that she made because I was working for her, and the most fair way to divide that money between us. But as far as I know, that conversation has never happened in the history of the universe, and so I collected my $14 an hour and kept my mouth shut.
Winter 2008-2009 – One Day as a Temp
I moved to Boston in October 2008, having decided over the summer that it wasn’t OK to keep living at home (as on a lot of work-and-finance-related issues, I’ve since changed my tune). But this was at the height of the Great Recession, and everyone seemed to agree that there were no jobs to be had, so I signed up with a few temp agencies. I figured that if I was going to have a day job, it might as well have the word “temporary” built in.
The temp agents were mostly terrible people, or good people acting terribly, selling terrible jobs to people who needed money and selling people who needed money to mostly terrible people offering terrible jobs, which seemed to be the only jobs available. The whole system was enough to turn almost anyone into a cynic about capitalism, nothing but middlemen as far as the eye could see. My girlfriend found a full-time job through a temp agency, and it was a pretty terrible job—an executive assistant to a VP at a real estate company that dealt almost exclusively in large commercial spaces, warehouses and big-box stores. It was a terrible time to be in that particular business, and my girlfriend had to deal with a lot of terribly rich and frequently terrible people who were having a terrible year professionally and took it out on their subordinates.
But I only had one real, full day as a temp, one of those last-minute, “day-of” temp jobs that the temp agency offers to the first person they find who’s awake and able to work. The contracting company had something to do with real estate, or maybe investing in real estate companies—I wasn’t sure—but they had a lot of promotional materials with pictures of buildings on them. I spent my day in the back room of a cubicle-filled office in a downtown skyscraper, filling envelopes with the aforementioned promotional materials, in as unironic a representation of modern-laborer-as-machine as I’d have thought possible. And let’s not forget that a machine doesn’t get bored, or check its phone while its supervisor is out of the room, or, you know, make mistakes. I was paid $10 an hour—$10 an hour to stuff envelopes. And on top of that, the temp agency probably took at least an extra 25% in commission, which means that the contracting company was willing to pay at least $12.50 an hour for my services. What?
How is it possible that this work could possibly pay more than minimum wage? Were there tax incentives for the company? Maybe some sort of complicated financial relationship with the temp agency? Because I’m sure it wasn’t charity. Perspectives: fruit pickers in Florida and California; slaughterhouse workers in the Midwest; the college kids who work at Gap and the high school kids and seniors who work at Walmart; cooks, in all kinds of restaurants—all are paid less than what I was paid to stuff envelopes. The world, it overwhelms me.
After taxes, I think I saw about $60 for the day, but they did buy me lunch, so let’s call it $70. And I got to listen to the rugby match that the Irish expat who oversaw the back room was streaming on his computer. Plus, life experience!
Spring 2009 – U.S. Census Address Canvasser
Let’s talk about hourly pay. Specifically, let’s talk about the fact that for all the rigidity and thoroughness of the rules regarding pay for U.S. Government Employees, at the end of the day, each individual employee is entrusted with the keeping and reporting of their hours worked. It’s ridiculous. It’s one of those farcical little quirks of life that underscore the feebleness of our pretension that our systems are permanent, that things are the way they are and must be always so. In its inability to mask the human error that must be present, it draws our attention to the arbitrariness of the whole enterprise. (Other fun examples: the ritualism of the measurement for a first down in a football game; pennies; speed limits.)
Ironically, this is the only job I’ve ever had for which I can’t remember exactly what I was paid. I made between $12 and $15 for every documented hour, but the exact rate eludes me. I remember thinking, at the time, that the pay was actually pretty fair. I think that’s because, of all the jobs I’ve had, the pay for this one was by far the most thoroughly quantified. Someone, somewhere, had sat down and done the math to figure out the hourly rate that would maximize employee efficiency without going over budget. My fellow workers and I had been planned for, strategized around, charted. The process of determining my pay had been open and honest and recorded—there are PDFs on government websites that proved I had been paid fairly. My guilt was assuaged by the sturdiness and sheer bulk of bureaucracy.
Mac Walton lives in Brooklyn and has multiple jobs and little web presence.