Pay me what I'm worth 2015.12.23


A letter from my brother Dan in Seattle arrived last week with some interesting data from his past. I was surprised that he still had this in his possession. Here's what he found.

Dan's report: People often ask “How much do they pay you?“ and the answer it typically “Not enough.” Many or most of us feel that way. But I got a terrible shock when I came across an old notebook where I had listed several of my first-ever jobs and how much each paid.

When I say “first ever,” I don't count the money my dad gave me for sweeping the Observer office floor, or what my grandmother paid for mowing her lawn. I mean a real live job for a company, with paychecks and tax deductions.

Here's the first item on my list: Morenci Rubber Products. $2.85 per hour. This was in the early 1970s. I was shocked to read that wage. Less than $3.00 for every hour in that hot and smelly place? Sure, it gave me enough cash to get a sundae at the Tastee Freeze after work and still have some change. But was it worth it?

Here's a memory from that job. When I reached out to grab a metal rubber mold, the sleeve of my shirt pulled back and exposed a small area of flesh between shirt and glove. That's where the metal touched me and I'd get burned, over and over again.

Next job: Part-time janitor in the cafeteria of Alice Lloyd Hall at the University of Michigan. $1.75 per hour. Yes, I was student at the time, so I expected terrible wages. Don't remember much about this one. I probably cleaned up a lot of spilled (or thrown) Jell-O.

Next up: Peter's Stamping, Fayette. $2.65 per hour. My only memory here is of the day I caught my thumb on a machine and bled profusely. But those are the risks you take when working for such stratospheric wages. 

Up in Ann Arbor again: I was a cook at Mr. Pizza. I dropped down to $2.10 per hour. It's food service, after all. I made giant batches of dough. I learned to toss globs of dough back and forth to stretch it out for a pie. I boosted my wages by eating copious amounts of pizza. 

There was a robbery attempt late one night when I was in charge. A silly attempt—a robbery by phone. The caller said there was a man across the street with a gun and we were supposed to put the money out back in a bag. We called the cops and I think the police quickly found and arrested a former Mr. Pizza employee. But still–my life was put at risk, sort of, for a minuscule rate of pay!

There are other jobs listed in my notebook. For example, stock boy at Jacobson's Department Store in Ann Arbor. $2.40 per hour. Out on the West Coast in the late 1970s, I finally broke the $3 per hour barrier. 

Scandalously low wages, right? But in each case I was above the minimum wage at the time. Using an inflation calculator, I learned that the $2.85 per hour job at Morenci Rubber Products is $16.28 per hour in terms of today's dollar. And if I had put that summer's earnings into a sound interest-bearing account for 45 years, I'd have a good fund today for pizza and Tastee Freeze.

Back to David: I learned Saturday while looking through old issues of the Observer that Michigan's minimum wage was scheduled to rise to $2.20 an hour starting Jan. 1, 1976. Gasoline was selling for 40 cents a gallon and a new car cost less than $4,000. Things change.

I kept no records of wages paid. I remember getting a penny a bale to help bring in the hay for Charlie Jones, but I have no recollection of what Jim Barrett paid for farm tile work nor do I remember what I was paid when I took my turn with burned wrists at Morenci Rubber. 

Sweeping the floor at the Observer office was worth 50 cents, I think. Mowing the lawn when I was a little older was better money, but leaf raking was probably just family duty without pay.

I have one wage report that tops any of Dan's stories. I worked as the school clown/teacher aide at Pigeon Hill School in Maine for the 1975-76 year and earned a dollar a day. I also got first pick at what the kids didn’t eat of their lunches. Pretty slim, you say, but there wasn't much to spend money on and those hippie moms packed some really good sandwiches.