What I’ve Learned from a Minimum Wage Job

I have earned a Master degree of Public Administration and a Bachelor degree in Social Work with a Psychology minor. I am trained in all sorts of things related to alcohol, tobacco cessation, wellness and life coaching, diversity, difficult people, strategic planning, organizational management, blah blah blah. I have about twenty years of higher education administration experience, with a cumulative seven years of non-profit work.. I have made up to $64,000 per year with full health insurance, two paid vacation and one sick day earned per month, and a 10% retirement contribution match.

I have been a paid professional for thirty years. I have worked in professional settings during all of this time. I have worked in and around community agencies, government representatives, legislators, University Presidents, college students, drug addicts, the mentally ill and millionaires. I have presented to groups as large as 200 and as small as five. I have represented my organization or agency locally, at the state and the national level. I have been a Coordinator, Manager, Educator, Assistant Director, Director, Executive Director. I have managed up to 50 people with a budget of $2 million dollars.

Currently, I earn $12 or $13 per hour with absolutely no benefits. I get a 20 minute break, if folks are paying attention, after four hours of work and then 30 minutes after a couple more hours. I have a uniform that I had to buy, except the shirt which is provided. The work is physical and demanding and usually outside. I am on my feet for hours and in constant motion. I am interacting with the public the entire time. I am a woman on the go!

My life has changed. Wait, that’s wrong. I have changed my life. I choose to work a job that allows me to choose. I choose work that is temporary, non-committal, devoid of responsibility. I chose to make some money before I started my pilgrimage and while I was on my home turf. I chose work that combines things that I love, such as being outside, movement, limited interaction with the public. I get very little supervision, I get no preparatory information before my shift, and there are times when I get no guidance during my shift. However, I like the work and minimum wage is way more than no wage. Right now, this works for me. Pun intended. 

What has drastically changed are the people I now work with. I work with the most diverse set of folks I have ever encountered. In fact, this group is so diverse that I cannot even generalize. Of course, I have not talked to them all so I do not know all of their stories. But, the ones I do know are a retiree making extra money, a newly married 22-year old military dude, a transgender person finding her way, a disabled person who ambulates with a scooter, a young person with social anxiety, nearly every race or ethnicity or religion and an age range that span decades. I work with folks who have had longer careers than mine and I work with folks who barely have the life skills to hold down a job. 

Previous versions of Michelle would not have the patience or wherewithal to deal with such a wide range of people. She would stay away, far, far away from anyone who was clearly lacking the skills to do their job well, or who was clearly unable to pull their weight. That Michelle would not have the patience for anyone who was not at her level. Well, this Michelle does. This Michelle does not mind making small talk with her teammates, no matter where they came from. This Michelle asks questions about the people, gets to know them and their story. She has the patience to care. Actually, I really do not care. I mean, I care, but I don’t. It is hard to explain. 

Currently, I am on a pilgrimage. Currently, I am on a mission to observe, to maximize random, brief encounters. Currently, I am here to learn. I find myself much more open to the “other” when I am in this mindset. When I am not trying to bring people in, but I am trying to learn about them, listen to their stories, ask them about their life. I don’t need to share about my life. In fact, I am rarely compelled to even go down that road and most do not ask. I am not looking to engage on the same level, or any level if that is the case. I am not here to make friends or grow may social media network. I am just here to listen. 

Having that mindset has changed everything. Being so open and so willing to listen and so welcoming makes this type of work much easier and my life much less stressful. I have let go of the need for “others” to meet me on my level, with my intelligence or education or vocabulary or world view. Now, don’t get me wrong, if I find me and this person have literally nothing in common aside from our initial interaction or if they rub me the wrong way, I will move on. Not in an obvious way, not in a hurtful or pejorative manner, but in such a way as they felt heard, even if for a short time. I move on in a way that helps me stay in a positive space, and lets that person feel valued. 

Please know that I am still learning how to be the pilgrim. So far, I am much more open to meaningless interactions with people I may never see again, talking about things of which I have no real interest. I am much more willing to engage with someone who I see as “other” than myself. I am more open to making space for that person, and to even share a space if that is warranted. Hell, I even handed out granola bars to the beggars at the stop signs. That was a first. I find myself not threatened by anyone who may consider me the “other” and not diminished when I see someone else as the “other”. I am working to be less judgmental, which has always been a thing with me. I am working to be more patient and willing to engage, rather than be so dismissive. 

I find that my perspective as the pilgrim has shifted the way I move around in the world, the way I take in data and feedback, impacted how and why I interact with others. This perspective makes room for anyone to enter into my emotional or intellectual or human space. I am more willing to let that happen. I feel like I am in control of this space and I work hard to keep it fluid, not strict and closed off. Working in this minimum wage job is continuing to challenge those parts of me that did not make room or time or capacity for anyone or anything that did not have an obvious purpose. What I failed to take into consideration is that everyone and everything has a purpose, should I choose to be open to it. 

I am making space for people to share their lives, their experiences, who and what they are all about. I do not need them to ask about me, and I am not compelled to share. This journey is about me, and yet it is not. It is about me growing and learning and moving in the world in a very different way. Nobody can diminish my accomplishments, my education, the value of my previous professional contributions. Nobody can take those away from me and forever they will stand. I am not less because of what I have done or the journey I am on. In fact, I am more because of it. I am more because of the people I work with and those I am in contact with. I realize this model is not sustainable for the long term. Eventually, I will need to be intellectually challenged, use those areas of expertise I have worked so hard to attain, exercise the skills that I have naturally, and fully engage my intellect and education. Eventually, I may need to make some real money, benefit from health insurance, and again contribute to my retirement. In time, my work situation may have to change. In time. But, not yet. 

I am a pilgrim who works a minimum wage job. Right now that is all I need. 

Carry on minimum wage warriors! Carry one!

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