Paid a Pittance

This is a guest post by Robert, who lives in Calgary and works as a financial advisor retired at 34. He is married, has three kids.  Robert and his wife then plan to return to school and become teachers, eventually living and working overseas.

I’ve been working a couple odd jobs lately. One example is the civic census. For about three weeks, I went out almost every evening for two hours and knocked on doors. The weather was pretty good, people are mostly helpful and I enjoyed doing it. I’m not sure exactly how much it will pay, but I’m guessing around $1,000. That will work out close to $20 per hour. I used to earn more as a stockbroker, and I could likely earn more if I returned to work, but I feel like I’m helping my community and there’s the added benefit that I get paid to exercise.

I also decided to work a polling station for the provincial election that took place in Alberta on April 23. It was long, but not very demanding. We worked from 8:00am setting up our polling station (there were six “stations” or tables in a school gym), doors opened at 9:00am for voting and it was pretty quiet until about 4:00pm. Then it was busy until doors closed at 8:00pm. (The good news for democracy is that voter turnout was around 57%, far higher than 41% in our last election.) Counting the ballots took from 8:00pm to 11:00pm.

Besides the attraction of serving my community, I chose to work the election in order to better understand the democratic process. Since learning about democracy and government in grade 6, I’m haven’t been taught about how our democratic system works. As it is, I barely remember anything I learned in grade 6. Volunteering on a couple of campaigns and helping with the vote was a great experience to see first hand how our citizens choose the politicians that represent us.

The pay isn’t too bad, either. Because there was a senate selection, there was some extra pay beyond the regular rate. In fact, I earned $375 over a 15 hour day, which works out to $25 an hour. It may not feel like much money, but it seems fair for the work we did. When the returning officer phoned me to ask if I would help with the official count, I agreed. I had the idea that I would enjoy seeing the rest of the process: what happens to the ballots after they’re counted on election day.

When I showed up to the election office the day after, I was a little surprised by the work they had to do. All the materials that came back from the polls had to be sorted into three groups: trash, recycling (maps, forms and papers that were written on, directional signs) and unused materials. We spent about three hours just clearing the office of the items that we didn’t need. I was working with two retired people and we spent three hours. In fairness, the returning officer (who was probably as new at this as I was) warned me that the work was going to be manual and the pay rate would be lower.

At the end of the afternoon, she asked me to sign my pay claim form. It said: 3 hours x $12.00 = $36.00 total. I feel ungrateful for just how underwhelmed I was. $36? I made more than that in an hour as a stockbroker (whether working or just catching up on economic news).  I had to pinch myself and remember that I was working to serve my community and learn about democracy, not to earn income. And a good thing, too, because my wife just laughed at me when I told her I had earned $36 that afternoon.

Have you done a job for a reason other than money? Is it better to volunteer outright, or to earn something, even if it undervalues your abilities?

8 thoughts on “Paid a Pittance”

  1. Good grief. Quitcherbitchin’. I used to make $35 to $45 an hour at my highly skilled job up until about ten years ago. The whole sector has gone to India, and I am now lucky to have a less than part time job at more often than not less than minimum wage. As a contractor I am not bound by provincial minimum wage regulations. Nor do I qualify for holiday pay, overtime or anything else. In looking for more work, the last job I was offered worked out to $3 US per hour.

    Undervalue my abilities? Oh, please. Not in this brave new new 21-century self-esteem-based world we live in now where everyone gets paid the same amount regardless of the required skills to do my job and the depth and breadth of experience I and others in my field have. You have absolutely no clue of the humiliation so many, many of us go through every day just trying to survive when once we could write our own ticket: you, sir, are just playing at working now.

  2. Hi Barbara, I bet you feel better to have gotten that off your chest. I hope I was clear right from the beginning that I am only playing at working. I took those jobs more for a sense of civic involvement than for the pay. I have no idea what it’s like to be paid far less than I used to, for the same work. I hope you’re able to find meaningful work that pays you a fair income. All the best!

  3. C’mon, Marc, lighten up. I wasn’t bitching. I was “sharing” in response to the last line: about working even though one’s abilities are undervalued. I’m “sharing” with all of you what that’s really like, when it isn’t a game and all your savings have been depleted.

    I’m “sharing” from a position of a broken heart and permanent disability — do yourself a favour and never get hit off your bicycle and flung through the air when YOU have the green light by a hit and run driver in a stolen car, and land on the pavement and smash your tailbone, or, years later, after you’ve started walking again after knee surgery, you get front-ended by some brainless bimbo who told the cop (who told me!) that “she didn’t know she had to do regular maintenance on her truck”, lost her brakes coming down a hill and crashed into me, not to mention almost killed her three kids who only had lap restraints, not legal seatbelts. She was charged with dangerous driving. I didn’t walk for two MORE years and I GOT ZERO from the insurance company.

    Sure, I get it: shit happens, and this time it happened to me.

    Eight years later, I have nothing. NOTHING. I can’t walk or stand in one place for more than ten minutes or my leg goes numb. I can’t sit for very long. I’m on painkillers 24/7. I will not go on disability or welfare. I pay taxes on the pittance I do earn. It certainly didn’t affect my brain: I am fully capable of working from home, but there IS NO WORK in my field. It has completely gone. It can happen to any of you.

    Marc, seriously, I’m very, very happy that you’re doing so much better than I am, and I hope you never, ever go through what I’m going through. I wouldn’t wish it on anybody. But you know what, Marc? Since this all happened, I can’t tell you the number of people I know in exactly the same boat — all of us professionals at the top of our game, to use the vernacular, and experts in our fields. None of us asked to be hit by cars, cut down by cancer or some other disease, or live with chronic pain/disability. Many of us will never, ever recover and now we’re just trying to survive.

  4. I think if you can earn something, you might as well, if you have the choice between volunteering outright and making a little extra cash. It’s always nice to have a little something extra.

  5. Well, I do think it’s not really right to take a work opportunity away from people who actually DO need that $36 even if you don’t. But for where you live probably nobody else wanted the job anyway.

    In answer to your question – no, it’s not worth my time at this point to get paid for essentially volunteer work. I look at it as I do having a yard sale or selling on kijiji vs. just giving things away to people who need them more than I do. It’s too much time and hassle for too little return for me to sell my own stuff. I’d rather just do a goodwill run at a convenient time.

    Having said that, I’d still like to be a cook in an oil camp some day for a couple of months. I worked in an oil camp almost 30 years ago now and it was kind of a fun experience. Maybe when the kids are grown up. 🙂

  6. Wow. This was an eye-opener for me. I am a judge of elections at my precinct (like your “returning officer” in Canada?) here in Philly. I arrive at 6:20 in the morning and, after driving to the Courthouse to tender the results, get home by 9:30 in the evening. Remuneration for me and the other four members of my election board? Averaging a little over $90 each for the entire day!

    Why? Certainly not for the money! 🙂 But because for that good old reason: Somebody needs to do it …. and I’m a Somebody.

    While I am duly impressed by the $ that seems to be available your way, I have to say that, for me, it’s not about the money (obviously).

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