Friday, February 15, 2019

The Color of Money

Because reasons, recent life changes have found me between jobs for the first time in twelve years. While I embarked on a search for a suitable new full-time gig, I decided to sign up with a local temporary employment agency to make sure I was bringing in some shekels so The Artist wouldn't kick me out on my skinny ass. She's funny about things like that.

After some time rolling through the Intratubes, I lucked into an agency that was looking for a weirdo like me with a wide-ranging resume'. Within a day or so, they had me booked for a month-long gig running a CNC machine in a small shop only 3 miles from my home. Although I hadn't worked in a machine shop since the 1970's, it sounded like a great way to resolve the immediate need, so I was all in.

Now, it's important to note that while I'm no newcomer to what is traditionally considered a 'blue-collar' job, the majority of my employment during the last 30 years has been in the 'white-collar' division of the automotive industry. I've been extremely fortunate to have worked in the performance-oriented areas of tires, spark plugs, suspension, event operations and client services, so it would be correct to say that I've been wearing a white shirt with a blue collar, or perhaps a blue-and white striped collar. Thousands of hours flying a desk, with lots of outside work at race tracks, shops, event sites, warehouses and client locations.

My first day at the machine shop was pretty much as I expected -- place parts into a CNC machine tool, run them through a couple of automated cycles, then remove them... typical production machining. The owner's son gave me a brief rundown of the process, showed me how to set up the parts correctly in the tooling jig, and then let me start machining. I was a bit shaky for the first hour or so but soon enough found a rhythm with the process and eventually was able to obliterate the previous operator's hourly completed piece count.

Between myself and another temp on the project, we burned through the raw parts inventory and finished the job in only seven working days, even though they had planned for us to be there almost a month. The owners gave big props and thanked us for the great work. Nailed it!

The surprising thing about this type of work is that while you might think it's an easy task that requires no real focus or concentration, that's most definitely NOT the case. More than a few times in the first two days I scrapped some parts because I lost focus, got distracted or tried to push the completed parts count too high too fast. I found myself having to concentrate far more than I'd expected for a repetitive-motion task like this, and at the end of each shift I was mentally exhausted.

I also had some clarifying moments during the countless machining cycles that got me thinking about blue-collar work in a larger context.

1. Hourly workers are typically allowed two 15-minute breaks per shift, one each in the morning and afternoon. These breaks are actually so short that it's impossible to rest. When the break would start, I'd head to the bathroom and then out to my dirty hippie van for a quick nosh, check my text messages and before long it was time to head back in. The actual break time was closer to 10 minutes.

2. Also typical for hourly workers is a 30-minute lunch, which turns out to be something like only 24 minutes of actual lunching. This time goes by like lightning when you're trying to scarf down snackie cakes and cheesie poofs. I found myself rushing to eat -- not optimum for anyone's digestion, especially if you have to wait for a microwave while someone else heats up their entrail stew (NOM!).

3. It's very easy to feel like a mindless drone while doing repetitive production work, but I couldn't be a mindless drone or else I'd screw up and scrap out parts, which I HATED to do. It felt like a personal failure to show the owner a part that I had mistakenly put in wrong or out of sequence, even though he just laughed it off and said "No biggie, just keep going". Thankfully, it rarely happened.

4. I was earning $15 an hour for this work, and while there's a push in this country to make that a national minimum 'living wage', there's no guarantee it'll ever happen. My Dad mentioned that where he lives in Northern California, most folks would love to have a job paying that much, but here in The OC it would be nearly impossible to survive making $28,800 a year as a primary income amount... BEFORE taxes. 

5. This type of hourly-wage blue-collar work is derided and disparaged by many here behind The Orange Curtain. They consider it work for 'those people', as if honest work and efforts to help businesses stay afloat is unseemly, lowbrow and non-important. I'd reckon those who've never worked in blue-collar jobs feel this way too, regardless of where they live. It's almost as if there's a de facto caste system in our country when it comes to employment. 

Think being a restaurant server, auto detailer or machine shop worker is a lowly, unskilled, easy job? 


For a large number of American workers, the color of money is BLUE.

Regarding the need for a national minimum living wage of $15 an hour...

When I started my first job in the Fall of 1972, the minimum wage was $1.65 an hour and if I worked a bunch of after-school and weekend hours, I might see a stratospheric paycheck of $60 for the week! This was a huge sum for a high-school Junior and allowed me to spend money on my '57 Chevy and take girls out on dates and even buy my own clothes, mostly second-hand jeans and flannel shirts (from Funky & Damned-Near New), white Penny's Towncraft t-shirts and sneakers. Dad required my self-purchased clothes since I was earning my own money, although he popped for socks and underwear like a good parental unit.

Adults were NEVER expected to live on that kind of hourly wage... at the time the adult average salary was just over $7,000 a year. Gasoline was $.25 a gallon, a new vinyl record was $1.99, and you could buy a burger,fries and small Coke from McDonald's for 99 cents. In general, although being poor back then was no less devastating, life was far more affordable and would allow a working adult a chance to earn a living with (GASP!) a pension and do pretty much OK.

In 1972, the US minimum wage of $1.65 an hour was paid for entry-level part-time work. Anyone working a full-time job for that wage would earn $3,168 a year before taxes. The average adult yearly salary was $7,000, which equates to $3.65 an hour and was considered a decent living wage at the time. That's a 55 per cent difference between the minimum and living hourly wages.

In 2018, when half of all workers earning the current minimum wage of $7.25 were adults, they earned $13,920 a year. The average adult salary was $56,516, which equates to $29 an hour. That's a 75 per cent difference between the two.

Think about those numbers.

Half of all workers earning the US minimum wage of $7.25 an hour are adults. The minimum wage has not been increased since 2009.

Imagine yourself earning $14,000 a year while trying to survive at the same time. If you're married and your spouse is also earning minimum wage, your household brings in $28,000 a year before taxes, and then you have to figure out housing and food and utilities and all the other costs associated with modern life. Then toss in some kids and the notion of healthcare for your family... it becomes a daunting proposition.

It cracks me up to hear the business world complain when the subject of raising the current minimum wage to a minimum living wage of $15 an hour is brought up. 

"We'll have to raise our prices if we pay our employees a higher minimum wage!!!" they bleat, grasping their stock portfolios to their thumping chests. There's even a large segment of a certain political ideology that thinks the minimum wage should be totally eliminated... which would increase their profits, of course.

That same ideology resents the notion of helping minimum wage workers towards gaining access to affordable healthcare or housing or food stamps, things they consider undeserved socialist 'entitlements' which costs the business world more of their precious, precious money. 

Many American business interests want to continue to pay slave wages wherever possible, refuse to offer or support affordable healthcare benefits, reject the notion of paying higher taxes, and think nothing about their low-paid employees needing federal and state support to survive while also fighting against those social benefits so their own profits can keep growing while they pay lower and lower taxes.

That's what some of us lefty pinko commie bastards refer to as corporate welfare. 


For an increasingly greedy number of moneyed US interests, the color of money is GREEN.

Our current POTUS has been preening his feathers over a recent report that says 300,000 new jobs were created as a result of his most-excellent Big Brain. What he doesn't say is that most of those jobs were in the lower-wage service sector, where many people are forced to work multiple jobs in order to survive. He too rejects the idea that working-class Americans need... DESERVE... higher wages and affordable healthcare and housing and food and child care and... well, you know.

The struggle for American survival continues... round and round it goes, and where it stops -- nobody knows.

My current temp job in senior community transportation is thankfully paying more than the machine shop gig, and there are indications they may want to hire me full-time. It would be a substantial salary decrease from my last job, but given my age and lack of a college degree, coupled with the amazing level of satisfaction and warm fuzzy I get from helping the Gray Panthers to attend church, see their doctors and shop at Big Lots, it may just be the right gig for this rapidly-aging, semi-sane Orange County weirdo.

I'll keep you posted.

I always like to end my essays with a thematically-related tune.  This one was playing on a loop in my head for most of the time I was standing in front of that CNC machine tool, feeding it parts, wondering how strange life's twists and turns can be and trying hard not to fuck up another part. Plus, yodeling!

The color of money is Red, White and Blue.

Lead image, gracias de Google images; The Vogues 'Five O'Clock World' video, muchismas gracias de Youtube; Welcome to the working week!