Minimum Wage Jobs (Part 3 of 3)

22 03 2011

Note:  This post is a continuation of Minimum Wage Jobs (Part 2 of 3) that posted on March 21, 2011.

In the previous post, I mentioned that the minimum wage job (MWJ) work environment – or at least the one that I was exposed to – seems to be very by the book.  The prevailing attitude was one of “this is your task” and anti-independent thinking, as opposed to valuing employees ideas about how to improve services and look out for the best interests of the company.  Here are two brief examples:

Example #1:  One day the manager came up to me and told me that I could take a break while the kids were at lunch because I’d be working hard all day.  I responded that I wasn’t sure that I needed the break, but thank you and I’ll be sure to clock out if I take it.  Lunch came around and the kids were totally crazy.  The other coaches needed my help and asked me to stay, so I didn’t take my break even though I could have used it by then.  When I received my paycheck the following week, I noticed that I wasn’t paid for this lunch that I worked and asked why.  I was told that because I worked extra hours that day, I was federally required to take a break and that I didn’t have the authority to keep working when the manager said that I could take a break.

First, there was no training and never any explanation of federally-required work breaks.  Second, was I supposed to turn to the kids and say “Sorry, I can’t help you with your food because my manager suggested that I take a break now”?  Third, it should have been explained that the break was mandatory and not optional.  Where I come from, if something needs to be done, you step up and do it.  So there seemed to be too much of a focus on the minutiae and not on the big picture.  Did I need the extra $8?  No.  But it was a principle of the matter thing and I was expecting either to be paid OR not to be paid, but to be thanked for my time.  I was not expecting to be scolded for helping out when I was not formally scheduled.

Example #2:  One Sunday, a friend was scheduled to work a birthday party and had to cancel last minute.  I already had plans for the afternoon but she said that it was an emergency, so I agreed to re-arrange and cover for her.  I spoke with the company’s HR lady who confirmed that I would receive $X for the afternoon.  Running this party for fifty kids and more than fifty neurotic adults was probably one of the more stressful roles that I have recently taken on, but at least I made a nice amount from the afternoon.  Or so I thought.  When I received my paycheck the next month, I saw that I had been paid for the party at the close-to-minimum-wage hourly rate and not the flat-rate party amount that had been specified by both the other coaches and the HR staff.

When I inquired with HR, she sent me to the “director of birthday parties”, another staff member who had been away on vacation at the time.  This girl told me that I was never authorized to work the birthday party because as director of birthday parties, I never obtained her specific permission and that she should have been called in the Bahamas to be asked if it was okay.  She then continued that I shouldn’t have been paid at all since she never okayed it and that she was being nice by even allowing me to receive my hourly wage.  She kept repeating her title as though it were a big deal and as though it gave her the authority to disregard what the head of HR, birthday party staff and California law otherwise dictated.  She wouldn’t budge.  I could see that this wasn’t going anywhere and it wasn’t worth the stress that it was causing me so I let it go, but I’m not used to being penny-pinched over minutes AND not having a senior employee’s word honored.

Overall, working at the gym was a worthwhile experience even if I hadn’t been paid a thing because it allowed me to take gymnastics classes for free and meet some great people.  (The manager of the gym and my coach were both really fantastic.)  Also, since we were allowed to overnight in the gym parking lot for much of the time, I had no commute and it was nice for Yair not to worry about finding a spot.  Nevertheless, my bottom line is that while I am happy to wait tables and experience other hard-working, minimum wage jobs in the future, I am mighty glad that I have a college degree in a “professional-type” field and the seeming opportunity to use it if / when I choose.


Finally, I’ll end with another fun trick.  Front tucks on the trampoline:

posted by ayo




8 responses

22 03 2011

I think penny pinching and nickle and diming employees to death are the rule in the MWJ environments. Sad, because employers seem to look at employees as a dime a dozen.

I’m with you. I would prefer bartending and waitressing over any other job if i was still part of that world.

Your front tuck looks great!

28 03 2011

Thanks for the encouragement, Cyndi! I’m not sure how long I would be able to stay motivated in a MWJ environment like the one I was in (with little autonomy and independence). Bartending and waitressing do seem like better options, though it must also be hard to be dependent on other people (tips) for a good chunk of your pay. Ah, decisions…

22 03 2011
Rachel Stern


I read with interest your postings about MWJ’s. It is interesting to me because of my experience.

When I was growing up, I became very interested in what was then called “distributive education” – specifically retailing and fashion. I wanted to work for a fashion retail company doing something….

Back then, in the 70’s, stores were not all homogenous, even the chain stores, and there was less regulation of jobs. Additionally, working in a store, in sales was not necessarily a minimum wage job. It was possible to work in retail sales and earn a decent wage. It was possible to work one’s way up the chain to management and earn a decent salary. Workers in the retail industry were treated with dignity and respect. And so, I was attracted to all this.

After I graduated HS, I spent 2 years in Israel and then I attended FIT. While attending FIT I worked a variety of stores – B Altman’s (a fancy dept store that no longer exists), and several high end boutiques in SOHO. I even worked for Ann Taylor – this was before Ann Taylor was a chain, but it was a well known store. I later moved back to upstate New York and worked for several years as a buyer/store manager for a boutique in New Paltz, NY. IN ALL my positions I was given much latitude for making decisions with regard to things like making a sale, breaking a sale, pricing, giving away an item or two to enhance a sale, rearranging merchandise groupings, display, and more. But, things were changing.

When the boss and I had a major disagreement at my job in New Paltz (over my health insurance coverage – she denied her culpability in reporting to the insurance company changes in my family status), I left and took a job working for JC Penney. The job was as the Visual Merchandising Manager of the store. Believe it or not, that job started as a wage-paying job rather than a salaried position. Initially, I took umbrage with this – but the wage I was earning was commensurate with any salary I would have wanted – or so I thought. Because I was required to clock in and out, this changed things. I was REQUIRED to take breaks. I was REQUIRED to take lunches. I did not get paid for this. I continued like this for two years. Then I decided to play a game. I went to my boss and told him I would be quitting my job – IF he did not move me up to a “management” position and put me on a SALARIED payroll. I knew, and he knew, that I was very good at my job and there were all too few people in the area who could do what I did. He agreed.

In the meantime, I watched how the other employees, the sales clerks were treated. Things had changed and were continuing to change. Sales clerks had NO AUTHORITY to make ANY decisions whatsoever, no THINKING was encouraged, EVERYTHING had to be “by the book”. Permission was needed to leave the floor to go to the bathroom. Personal phone calls were disallowed. Schedules were never the same from one week to the next. This week Cindy, a single working mother, would have to work M, W, Th, F, Sat. On Mon she worked from noon until five. On Wed from nine until two. On Thurs from five until nine. Get the picture??? Most sales clerks were part time. This was done in order to not have to give them benefits – such as HEALTH insurance!! Their hours would be closely monitored so that they did not go over the amount of hours at which point the company would be required to give them benefits. Most of these are the very people who need benefits and cannot get them. And, imagine being a single working mother, with young children and a fluctuating schedule. Imagine how difficult it has to be to arrange child care as per a fluctuating schedule.

I could not stand how these people were treated. It did not get better over time. It got worse. These people were given no dignity, were treated like children. I could not stand it. I started looking for a way out for myself. I could not be privy to this and be part of it. In 1996 I got partway out, by taking a job working for a wholesaler of jeans (Lee Jeans). My job was to design and produce merchandising programs to be implemented in Macy’s department stores across the country. It meant that I had to go to the stores and spend time in the stores doing set ups and training their personnel. The particular Macy’s store I spent the most time in was their flagship store – Macy’s Herald Square.

Macy’s Herald Square was unionized. One might think this was a good thing. As far as I was concerned, the union was worthless and less than worthless. The sales clerks there were treated at least as badly was what I witnessed at JCPenney – perhaps even worse. Here is one really stupid thing the union enacted. When I would be in the store I would be working on a new floor set up. That meant I would be moving fixtures, hanging clothing, folding clothing, and arranging all the merchandise in the Lee Jeans shop, including the signage and displays, etc. Whenever I would be there to do this sort of thing I had to wait until a Macy’s employee was sent over to my area to do what they called “standby”. In other words, that employee could not do ANY work. She had to just stand there and watch me work. WHY? Because ostensibly, (to them) my presence there, doing work, I was “replacing” one of their employees and the union was afraid that if I did that, then Macy’s would employ fewer employees. My being there could cause hours to be reduced etc. Amazing piece of skewed logic!

Two years later I was totally out of the game. I moved on to more technological work. I never looked back. I could not work like that, nor could I endorse the conditions under which those poor people worked. With the growth of big box retailing, and the homogenization of nearly EVERYTHING today, it has gotten worse than ever before. Today, sales clerks do not even have to be knowledgeable about the items they are selling. They do not even talk to customers. They do not even look customers in the eye. I hate shopping today. Ugh.

Anyway, I just wanted to share with you my experiences that seem relevant to your pieces on MWJ.

Kol tuv,

Rachel Stern

28 03 2011

I just read your comment for a third time and am still taking in your story. Your piece should be an article in a magazine or something. Really fascinating stuff. Thanks for sharing your perspective, as your experiences over a long period of time definitely give us an inside look into this field.

22 03 2011

You might like the book Nickel and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich. She tried to live as a low skilled near min wage worker and wrote a book about it.

28 03 2011

Yes, I do believe that I read Nickle and Dimed a couple of years ago. Wonderful book! Thanks for the recommendation. 🙂

26 03 2011

Wonder if they knew you have a blog…
Great comments from Rachel and Dan. N&D is an interesting read.

28 03 2011

With the exception of my gymnastics coach (who is a personal friend), I don’t think that any of the others know about the blog. While I don’t hide the name of the gymnastics facility, I do try to be discreet whenever offering criticism because – at the end of the day – the gym was good to me in accommodating my request to work/volunteer in exchange for classes and I don’t think that my experiences would change things on a larger scale.

Separately, I am not embarrassed of anything that I write, but it’s always interesting when I write about a friend or acquaintance and the person later finds the piece that was written about them. For example, I have one wonderful friend who used to be significantly in debt. I wrote about her anonymously on the blog several months ago and when spending time with her this past month, she found the piece while surfing the blog. After a potential moment of awkwardness, the post sparked a really great conversation on financial choices and unexpected circumstances, and life continued as normal.

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