Before I was a glamorous temp, I was an adjunct or worked some academic “fellowship”-type jobs. I signed up for direct deposit and every couple of weeks some money would show up in my bank account and it was enough to pay rent and buy my favorite food of tacos. It was never a lot of money, but somehow I didn’t perceive it as an hourly wage, which is weird because I could easily have done the math and figured out what I was pulling in per hour.
Actually, maybe I couldn’t have figured it out that easily because, what counts as “teaching” anyway? Is emailing students part of the work of illuminating young minds? What about when you’re standing in a museum looking at a pretty painting and – ding ding ding! – you get an idea for something to do in class? Is that a teaching duty that should be added into the hourly calculation? Probably. But no one actually does the math on stuff like that.
The point is that when I was just getting some money for things that I did, even though I never had a lot and was always running out at the end of the pay cycle, I never thought about what I was earning per hour. I did some stuff and I got money for it, that it.
How things change! I have a whole new perspective now that my worth as a working person/human being has been precisely calculated on an hourly scale by a barely-visible, all-powerful organization called “the temp agency.
My psychology has responded accordingly. I have gotten into the habit of calculating just how much of my time on Earth all my expenses are actually costing me at the average rate of $15/hour. Here are some recent examples.
Ice Coffee. This is an expense that is hard to escape in NYC because these frosty drinks are as ubiquitous as fedoras in hipster Brooklyn, and it is so god damn hot in the summer. When you see someone walking down the street with a milky ice coffee on a humid day, you have to get one too. Cost: $2.50 – Amount of time I have to work to pay for it: 10 minutes.
Lunchtime Sandwich. Here things start to get tricky because I have been eating my lunchtime sandwich from the corner deli during my unpaid lunch break from the temp job. That means that not only am I not earning my hourly during that time, I am spending money on food-fuel so that I may return to the site of labor and work some more. This presents a unique problem for the Math-challenged English major. Does the sandwich (which costs around $8 in Manhattan) actually cost more than $8 because I am not getting paid to eat it? In other words, what is an equation that would allow me to calculate the exact cost of the sandwich in actual labor time considering that I paid to eat it while not getting paid (to eat it)?
I confess it is a conundrum for the newly initiated.
Shoes For Work. I have reluctantly purchased a few items of clothing to wear to various office gigs. (Though one is expected to work for a low wage, one is not expected to dress like it.) Last month, I had to buy a $30 pair of shoes (at a discount store, obviously). I had to work 2 hours to pay for those shoes.
Yet, in a way, the shoes and the sandwich present a similar problem.
I had to work to pay for the shoes according to a scale of labor time measured in dollars. Yet, if I didn’t buy the shoes, I wouldn’t be presentable for work. So because I had to buy the shoes in order to work and then I had to work for 2 hours to pay for the shoes, are the shoes worth more or less than what I paid for them? I think what I’m asking is, What are shoes needed to work to pay for the shoes actually worth?
Do you see how the difficulties pile up? I have realized that it is not just a matter of how much I earn versus how much I spend. There is some cosmic shit going on! To wit:
Faxing My Timesheet. Every week I have to fax my timesheet to the temp agency so I can get the money they owe me (which is a percentage of the much larger amount that the employer paid them). If I work on the day the timesheet is due, I cannot get home in time to fax it, so I have to fax it from a business that charges me $1.50 for the service. That means I have to work 6 minutes to pay for the fax that I must send to prove that I worked. If I don’t send the fax, I will not get paid. But if I don’t work, then I don’t need to send the fax, so in that case it doesn’t cost me 6 minutes of labor time.
Finally, these hourly calculations are altering my behavior in ways that I previously thought impossible.
Alcohol. I enjoy a nice cold glass of vodka or two at the end of the work day. Sometimes it has some juice in it or a little lemon peel is quite nice, but I am not particular.
The other day I was standing in the liquor store preparing to make my vodka selection, something I have done a million times before, on autopilot. This time, in response to my new found penchant for performing complex mathematical calculations in my head, I examined the prices more closely. The bottle I usually get is $35. That means I would have to temp more than 2 hours to pay for it.
I paused and considered the options.
I changed brands. I purchased a $30 bottle, saving myself something like 12 minutes of labor time (you fancy math people will have to correct me on the numbers which I know are wrong).
But the thing is, if I wasn’t working a miserable temp job, I wouldn’t drink as much vodka, probably. So then I could get the good stuff and just drink less of it. But I couldn’t afford the good stuff if I wasn’t working, even though the fact that I am working has increased my consciousness of wage slavery, which has prompted me to both drink more and to purchase the less expensive bottle.
Of course, I could forgo the juice or lemon peel to save money, but – come on now – I am not a savage.
So, as you can see, my attempt to figure out how much things actually cost and how much my life is worth (which, it turns out, is the same as figuring out how many ice coffees I can afford in a month) is very difficult indeed for the hourly temp.
Instead of thinking about it, I will make my vodka drink and watch some Dressage.
*Of course, I worked for an hourly wage for years before entering the grad school precarious employment mill, but it’s easy to forget, especially when you think you’ve left those days behind now that you’ve been accepted into the Grad School University. After all, one has no problem accepting low wages for an apprenticeship on the road to academic bliss.