I Made $2.71 per Hour

By - March 23, 2014

My internet business income had been falling for a couple years so I decided in early 2013 that it was time to get a job, just in case. I didn't realize how low typical pay was now, because I hadn't had a job in about nine or ten years. After discovering that a 48-year-old with no recent job experience is not what most employers are looking for, I went to Labor Finders, a temporary work agency with a branch office here in Naples, Florida.

More than twenty years earlier I had worked as a temporary worker for about $8 to $9 per hour. In 2013 Labor Finders was paying the Florida minimum wage of $7.79 per hour for most assignments. Considering that things cost almost twice as much now, that's a pretty serious drop in pay over two decades. But it gets worse...

At Labor Finders you have to show up at six in the morning and sit there with other sleepy men and women, waiting to see if you'll get an assignment. They make it clear that you won't be paid for this time, and that there may not be work available. In fact, I waited for hours on several occasions without getting an assignment. You have to calculate when to give up and leave or they'll let you sit there all morning. If there is nothing by 9:00 it isn't likely you'll be working that day. I did get assignments eventually, doing construction cleanup and working as a sign holder on the side of the highway. And I avoided the minimum-wage ditch digging assignments.

A few days ago I found my old pay stubs and decided to calculate how much money I made for my time. When I do this exercise I include all time from when I leave the house to when I return. I also deduct all expenses related to the job and all taxes. In this way I can fairly compare different options. One job might be further away and cost more for car expenses. On business income I pay 15.3% for the self-employment tax rather than the 7.65% payroll tax I pay as an employee (the employer pays the other half). If I work from home I have no commuting cost or time. I want to compare apples with apples. Now that my income is lower the highest marginal income tax rate (federal) I pay is 15%, and there is no state income tax in Florida. Finally, I figure that it costs 30 cents per mile to operate my car. I based the following calculations on a week when I worked a few days doing construction work and cleanup.

My First Assignment

Monday I left home at 5:45 a.m. and drove the seven miles to the Labor Finders office. I gave up at 8:30 because there was no work, and I arrived home at 8:45. The next day I again left home at 5:45 and was assigned to a construction job around 7:30. The job site was 22 miles away and it took 45 minutes to get there. Labor Finders does not pay for time getting to the site, but they did pay me $5 extra for taking another employee who didn't have a car. According to a sign on the wall of the office they would deduct a fee from his wages for arranging the ride.

The work wasn't bad. We build cabinets, installed shelves and kitchen equipment, and swept up messes. I worked until 4:15 and drove back to the office. This was necessary both to drop off the other employee and to collect my paycheck.

Employees are paid at the end of every working day. This might be in part to keep them coming back for more work. I met several workers who were homeless and could probably use that money as soon as they could get it. Daily pay is also a clear reminder that these are temporary positions. My gross pay for the day was $67.32 including the $5 extra for transporting an employee. I got home at 5:30, having been gone for 11 hours and 45 minutes.

By the way, the client was a decent guy and liked my work. I generally feel that even when paid too little I should do a good job since it will take the same amount of time as slacking off. I don't know what he paid for my time working for him.

I worked two more days that week, and they were shorter because I didn't need to wait for the assignment. I left the house at 7:00 each morning, drove seven miles to get the other employee, drove the 22 miles to the job site, worked eight hours, drove the other employee home, got my paycheck and was home by 5:30. Here's the time breakdown:

  • Monday: 3 hours (waiting; no work)
  • Tuesday: 11.75 hours
  • Wednesday: (no work)
  • Thursday: 10.5 hours
  • Friday: 10.5 hours

Total time outside my home for work purposes: 35.75 hours

And here is what I got after expenses and taxes:

Gross Pay: 201.96

All Taxes (payroll and income): $44.57

Car Expense (202 miles total): $60.60

Net Pay (after taxes and expenses): $96.79

That's what I actually made working for Labor Finders that week. Divide it by the hours I was out of the house for work and here's what I get:

Net pay of $96.79 divided by 35.75 hours equals $2.71 per hour.

I knew the pay was crappy, but until this moment, a year later, I didn't realize just how bad it was. Of course I had enough other income to push me into that 15% marginal rate, while the guy I worked with probably made too little to owe income tax. His transportation expense was only $5 per day if they charged him fully for what they paid me. So his gross of $171.96 would have netted him $158.81 compared to my $96.79. He also lived near the Labor Finders office and so didn't have any real commuting time there. He might have been away from home only 32 hours to earn that, making his hourly rate $4.96. Isn't that more exciting?

Some readers might argue that it isn't fair for me to calculate the time the way I do because all jobs have unpaid commuting time. In fact, all jobs do not have that time or expense. I've been working recently for $13.50 per hour for an online employer (in addition to my freelance writing work). The commute is ten seconds. I calculate my pay the way I do so I can compare alternatives fairly. But even if we ignored the commuting time and waiting time (which I would never do) my 24 hours actually working on the job site netted me $4.03 per hour after taxes and expenses (or $5.88 before taxes if anyone wants to argue it into looking better).

That's still not the end of it. Labor Finders makes it clear that workers have to buy work boots on their own. They open and close the office somewhat randomly later in the day, so employees have to sometimes wait to get their paychecks when they arrive back at the office. And finally, when I was doing my taxes and realized I hadn't received my W-2, I called and was told that they don't mail them out. What if a previous employee moved to California? "Are you in California?" the guy asked. No, I wasn't.

It was probably illegal for them to not mail the tax information, and I didn't want to spend an hour (or the $4 car expense) to drive there (and back) and wait to get my W-2. But I also didn't think arguing was going to get anyone to put a stamp on an envelope and mail me my W-2. I drove to the office and waited behind two workers who had just finished digging ditches for $7.79 per hour (before taxes and expenses). I have to say, honestly, that if this is the alternative for anyone reading this, do yourself and your family a favor and stay on unemployment or welfare until you find an employer that pays better and treats their employees with more respect.

Other Pages

Working for the One Percent in Florida

Unethical Employers

Less Than Minimum Wage