Holding an advertising sign on the side of the highway in the hot Florida sun was one of the worst jobs I’ve had, in part because it only paid $7.79 per hour — the state’s minimum wage.
But that was slightly better than the 1.5 million people making the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour, and definitely better than the 1.8 million workers making less than the federal minimum wage. You see, as explained on the Department of Labor website, many employers are exempt from paying the minimum.
Even for workers earning more than minimum wage, times are tough. The Pew Research Center says real wages have been stagnant for decades. The average hourly wage of $20.67 is below wages from the early 1970s, when measured in constant 2014 dollars. But that average probably looks pretty good to workers at the bottom. In 2013 dollars, the minimum wage was $10.69 in 1968, versus $7.25 today, a loss of 32% in 36 years, according to a Congressional Research Service report.
A full quarter of all private sector workers make less than $10 per hour, according to the National Employment Law Project. So where are all of these low-paid positions? Here is a look at some common and not-so-common jobs that pay the least.
1. Day Laborer
In the temporary labor industry, there’s a difference between day labor and job placement. Firms that provide the latter give you the opportunity to try out different positions, gain experience or even make a decent wage. Day labor firms just need cheap — and usually very temporary — labor for their clients. Minimum wage is common at these companies.
But minimum wage is the nominal pay. When you consider uncompensated hours spent waiting for work that may not appear (usually starting at 5:30 a.m.), and subtract the travel expenses for long-distance assignments, the net wage for all time devoted to work can be far less than that. The last time I worked for a day labor company, I calculated that I made $2.71 per hour after all expenses and taxes.
2. Restaurant Server
You can make great money waiting tables. It’s all about where you work, the shifts you get and the service you provide.
But not all restaurant servers make a decent wage. In fact, the federal minimum wage for tipped positions is just $2.13 per hour. Some states have higher minimums, but in those that don’t, the tipped-worker minimum wage hasn’t changed for 22 years.
If the tips don’t bring the employees total wage up to the federal minimum of $7.25 per hour, employers are supposed to make up the difference, but many do not. A White House report says, “more than 1 in 10 workers in predominantly tipped occupations report hourly wages below the full federal minimum wage, including tips.”
Some employers even use legal tricks to avoid making up the difference on less-than-minimum-wage days. One waitress reports her employer averaged her tips over the week, so tips from good days were applied to low-tip days to meet the minimum wage. Others report that some employers just refuse to pay anything extra if they fall below $7.25 an hour, advising them to get a different job if they want more.
3. Home Health Aide
The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) says the median wage of home health aides is $10.01 per hour, but some may be paid far less than that. Companies offering home health care are exempt from paying minimum wage. As reported by TheHill.com, when the Labor Department tried to make these companies pay minimum wage, a U.S. District Court Judge struck down the new regulation.
4. Hotel Housekeeper
The BLS puts the median wage for housekeepers at $9.41 per hour. It isn’t clear how much tip income is included in that figure. While employers may not offer more pay directly anytime soon, CBS News reports that Marriott is trying to get guests to tip more in order to raise the income of their employees.
The median pay of cashiers is just $9.12 per hour, so half of all cashiers make less than that amount. The BLS notes that, “the risk from robberies and homicides is higher for cashiers than for most other workers.” Great… as a cashier, you get low pay and dangerous work.
This position made NBC News’ list of lowest-paid jobs, with a median wage of $8.81 per hour. There are about a half-million people who hold this position. The lowest average pay for dishwashers is in Florida, at $8.62 per hour.
7. Fast Food Worker
One survey of fast food employees shows an average wage of $7.75 per hour. About 87% of respondents also said they did not get any health coverage.
8. Political Convention Worker
While workers at the last Republican National Convention in Tampa, Florida, were paid minimum wage ($7.67 at the time), some were charged up to $11 per week for their uniforms, notes The Huffington Post. That brought the workers’ effective pay rate below minimum wage. I haven’t found any reports on what employees made at the Democratic National Convention.
9. Farm Worker
Farm workers make $10,000 to 12,499 per year, according to The National Agricultural Workers Survey (NAWS) — leaving most far below poverty level. As pointed out by the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), those figures include wages of managers and supervisors. Since those positions are over 20% of farmworkers and come with higher pay, it seems likely that many field workers make less than $10,000 annually.
Farms are partially exempt from the Fair Labor Standards Act, and don’t have to pay overtime. While most laborers are supposed to be paid minimum wage, when they work on a piecework basis, the law is often ignored. For example, the CIW says tomato pickers around Immokalee, Florida, get up as early as 4:30 a.m. and may return home from the fields as late as 8:00 p.m., having made about $50 if they managed to pick 4,000 pounds of tomatoes that day.
Then there are those workers who are paid even less — or nothing at all. As reported by The Nation, slavery has been a regular problem in the tomato fields of Florida. More than a thousand slaves have been freed so far.
Will wages for tomato pickers improve any time soon? Maybe, but according to a report on NPR, it isn’t easy for farm owners to pay more. When some farms tried to pay their workers an extra penny per pound, the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange threatened them with $100,000 fines.
This low pay is not unique to the tomato fields of Florida. Because they are paid a “piece rate” instead of an hourly wage, onion pickers in the fields of California can make as little as $20 daily, according to an article on The Huffington Post. Grape harvesters typically make around $5.40 per hour, if they gather the average of 12 “tables” an hour. Of course, those who are slower make less.
Farm workers may be the lowest paid employees in the country.
Your Turn: What’s the worst pay you’ve received for a job?