Well Below The Minimum

I got my first job in 1961, the summer after my freshman year in high school. I was fourteen.

I grew up on a cattle ranch in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California, called the “Rough Diamond Ranch”. My summer job was working on a neighboring cattle ranch. Along with most everyone on ranches back then, I worked five ten-hour days a week, seven am to six pm with an hour for lunch. Well, everyone worked those hours except for the ranch owners. They generally worked sunup to sundown six days a week, with Sunday a day of rest.

First work of the day was moving the sprinkler pipes that watered a section of the hay fields. You want to get started early when you’re moving pipes—they’re aluminum and by late morning, they’ll burn your hands.

moving sprinkler pipes.png

After that, we each got a pair of hay hooks from the barn.

hay hooks.png

These days they make hay hooks all slick, with “D” shaped handles and leather hand guards to make it easier on your hands, but back then they were a simpler tool.

Then one of the grownups started up the tractor with the flatbed trailer, and we went out to the fields to load hay bales into the trailer. Now, with my boots on and holding the hay hooks, I weighed about 110 pounds (50 kg) at the time. So I learned very quickly about moving heavy objects with my back and legs, and about how to swing and move with the swing. The grownups could just pick up the bales and heave them. I was not so fortunate.

The worst is when the trailer is almost full. You hook the hay hooks into the ends of the hay bale, lift it up, and start it swinging towards the trailer. Then you use your knee to lift it up towards your chest, get underneath it, and push it upwards onto the top row on the trailer.

bucking hay.png

Your reward, of course, is a shower of hay, straw, and foxtails that fall from what was the top of the hay bale and is now the bottom of the hay bale currently held over your head. It cascades over your head and face and down into your shirt and pants. Repeat for four incredibly long hours … and blessed lunchtime arrives.

Lunchtime occupations were simple. 1) Eat lunch. 2) Take off shoes, socks, t-shirt, pants, and underwear. 3) Take hay, straw, and foxtails out of underwear, socks, t-shirt, and pants. 4) Do Step 2 in reverse. 5) Go back to work.

Afternoons the heat got bad, well over 90°F (32°C), and the day seemed to stretch out into next week. Bale after endless bale, off the ground, onto the trailer. Midafternoon, ten minutes rest. We’d take off our t-shirts and put them into the creek, put them back on again. In fifteen minutes, they’d be bone dry.

Finally, after an eternity of hay and heat, it would be six o’clock. And after once again disrobing and removing stickers and foxtails from garments, ears, hair, and various bodily crevices, we’d be free until the next day.

For this, I was paid the princely wage of thirty cents US per hour. $66 per month. And I assure you, I was glad to have a job.

And before you say “But that was 1961 dollars”, here are the corresponding 2018 inflation-adjusted numbers.

$2.55 per hour. $561 per month.

And why did I get only thirty cents an hour then, which would be $2.55 per hour today?

Because, although it pains me to say it even at this late date, that is all that I was worth. I wasn’t worth a full grown-up’s wage. I wasn’t taking responsibility for driving the tractor. I wasn’t looking after the trailer maintenance. I wasn’t in charge of anyone else’s work. I wasn’t choosing where in the barn the hay would go. I wasn’t able to move hay nearly as fast as they could. I was just a small, easily distracted, slow field laborer, period, end of story.

I bring this up in the context of the current fight for a minimum wage of $15. Back in 1961, the minimum wage was a dollar an hour. And I was very fortunate that where I lived, nobody paid a damn bit of attention to what was then called something a bit coarser than “Federal Guv’mint bull-dust” emanating from the pluted bloatocrats in Washington DC.

Because if they had, I would not have had a job at all back then. I would not have learned how to work, just work—no whining or complaining, no excuses, just put my shoulder to the wheel and keep it there for ten hours a day. I would also not have had the joy of spending my own money, money I’d earned myself through my own hard labor. And I would not have had the pride of knowing that I could do an adult’s job, not as fast or as well as they could, but the end result was the same—hay in the barn, no hay in the fields, the job got done.

So please, I implore you, stop agitating for a higher “living wage” or “minimum wage”. All that does is force the bottom end of the labor pool out of a job. It has had that effect everywhere that it has been tried, with Seattle being the latest victim of this insanity. A University study of their experience concluded, “Seattle’s minimum wage ordinance appears to have delivered higher pay to experienced workers at the cost of reduced opportunity for the inexperienced.”

No duh, as they say … and if the inexperienced can’t get started in the workforce and thus can’t learn how to put in an honest day’s work, there will be trouble ahead …


Here, we’ve had a foot of rain in two days, and the Russian River is ten feet over flood stage. I’m old enough to remember five years ago when Governor Jerry “Moonbeam” Brown claimed that California was in eternal drought conditions because of “global warming”.

It seems the raindrops didn’t get the memo.

Best to all,

w.

PS—If after reading the above you still believe in the minimum wage, let me invite you to read my brilliant plan regarding how we can use the minimum wage to end all poverty in the US …

22 thoughts on “Well Below The Minimum

  1. hi, I started out as a grocery boy hauling carts around the parking lot. A white long sleeve dress shirt and dark slacks. I was 15.
    When I was 17 I trailer sat what was then my father’s gentleman farm. He rented out some acreage to some cattlemen. My job was to keep the herd on the farm inside the fences. Came to find out I was lucky not to be ground mulch, my cattle herding method was pretty dumb. At the end of my rope, I got a farmer’s son to help me one day. Oh. When the allowance (rather meager) didn’t meet the end of the month I followed up a lead on a job bailing hay bails. Willis I can attest moving hay bails is hard work. I might have been a buck twenty and older than you but it was hard work, all I could do not to look to frail. I did get the idea I wasn’t the quickest mover of the bunch. Two days was all I managed, couldn’t even work up the courage to ask for my wages. Just never came back.
    During college, I got a summer job helping carpenters build houses. I did manage to live on minimum wage. Let’s see I had food, a place to sleep, gas money. Period, no phone, TV or girlfriend.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Work is one of life’s basic necessities.
    Everyone seemed to understand this in earlier times. Everyone aspired to have paid work, didn’t really matter what it entailed (within common sense reason)
    Us kids back then were introduced to the satisfaction of work by our parents at every opportunity.
    “Pocket-money” was what we were able to earn ourselves and put in our own pockets.
    Have things changed Willis?

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  3. Brings back old memories for me. My first paying job was working in the summer on my grandfather’s farm in far South Texas. I was somewhere around 14 years old when I first started and I don’t remember how much I got paid, but it wasn’t much. I started out hoeing weeds and mowing lawns at that age. A couple years later I was big enough to load hay bales on a trailer in the field and then unload them into a barn, so been there done that. It was over 90F every day, but being close to the coast there was a nice sea breeze that kept it from getting too hot. The hottest part was unloading into the barn where there was no breeze. I remember getting completely drenched in sweat with the unloading.

    I then learned how to drive tractors pulling various implements to work the fields. The summer after graduating from high school in 1970, my grandfather got me a job in a cotton gin, 10 hours a day, 6 days a week, at $2/hour. The noisiest job I have ever had by far. My ears were ringing at the end of each day. My job was to quickly place the metal straps that a machine wrapped around each giant cotton bale.

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  4. Willis,
    Back in the late 50s and early 60s I believe that the federal minimum wage applied only to those companies that were doing interstate commerce such as the daily newspaper where I worked after school and during the summer. For some reason grocery store chains and fast food businesses were exempt from that definition. Grocery baggers and fast food workers typically got 30c an hour.
    I usually worked 17 to 20 hours a week. With that I was able to pay rent and utilities on a one bedroom apartment. This was in northwest North Dakota, 4+ months of cold, but no worries about that. The heat was provided free by the landlord which was a bakery on the ground floor below. Meat, milk, eggs and potatoes were provided by my folks from their farm. No TV, but I did see every movie presented by the two theaters in town.
    When the folks bought a baler, hauling those bales was a piece of cake compared with how we handled fodder and bedding before that. The mountain of straw piled up by the threshing machine was whittled away two big hay wagon loads a weekend throughout the winter. The alfalfa and grass fodder was cut with a mower, raked into bunches then loaded with pitchforks into hay wagons and delivered to stacks located at the feed points.
    Summer was a routine of collecting and hauling about 20 loads of rocks from the fields in fallow, mucking out the barn and cattle shelter and mucking out two large chicken coops. I thought itchy-scratchy was bad unloading rolled oats by shovel through a small bin opening about head high. Even without a breeze present, the microscopic slivers of oat hulls would waft down and penetrate even tightly worn clothes The oats was taken to a local feed mill where it was crushed and mixed with vitamins, minerals and molasses. The process involved the use of steam in the mixing of the ingredients so it was still hot when unloaded. Hot, sticky and itchy.
    Like I said, I thought that rolled oats was bad. It wasn’t near as bad as the itchy-scratchy experienced when I got a three day “spot job” as a helper for a couple of out-of-town plumbing contractors installing a sprinkler system in an old wooden grain elevator. Even the highest bit of structure was covered with fine dust. The slightest disturbance to the structure brought down a cloud of the stuff. The first day was the worst since I had normal work clothes of jeans, shirt and boots. I got home, took a shower, ate supper and went to bed early. When the alarm went off in the morning I sat up in bed and found that my eyelids were glued together. Brief panic, soon corrected.
    I was fortunate to have a pair of US Army coveralls that fastened tight around the neck and ankles and a pair of goggles that were a fair fit. I used those the next two days. We finished the job several hours early so the plumbers bought me supper and paid me and added a $10 bonus. They said that I was the best helper that they had ever hired. That was the worst job I ever had but one of the most gratifying in that I felt then that I would succeed in anything I tried.

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  5. Finally, something I can identify with, being a landlubber. Except we moved sprinkler pipe in the morning AND the evening, in potatoes (think mud) and barley (think 5-foot high grain, you had to carry the pipe shoulder high). The mosquitoes were so thick you didn’t care whether they borrowed a little blood – we quickly became immune to their bites, so no itchy bumps – but it was a real nuisance when they flew in your ears, your eyes, your nose, and, worst of all, your lungs. Hauling hay wasn’t so bad because we dragged a slip behind the tractor instead of using a wagon. But we didn’t have hooks, we had to grab the twine. Fun times. We made decent money, all things considered (meaning it wasn’t enough to live on, but it was better than nothing – hey, we were kids!).

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  6. Here is another perspective on “the living wage.”

    Everyone should be paid a living wage, so they can afford a house, a car, groceries and the basic bills, right? It only seems fair and it is what used to be.

    But what happens when you have two people in a household and both are making a living wage? They can afford a better house, a better car, better groceries and more basic stuff, right? It only seems fair.

    But wait a minute…..

    If we are going to have two earner families, how can we afford to pay one earner families a living wage? The moment we do, the two earners bid up the price of everything.

    So the only practical solution would be to pay two earner couples – half a living wage. It only seems fair.

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  7. wondering if you are watching BBC america “South Pacific … castaways ” … it brings to life so many of your awesome stories

    On Wed, Feb 27, 2019 at 5:28 PM Skating Under The Ice wrote:

    > Willis Eschenbach posted: “I got my first job in 1961, the summer after my > freshman year in high school. I was fourteen. I grew up on a cattle ranch > in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California, called the “Rough Diamond > Ranch”. My summer job was working on a neighboring cattle ran” >

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  8. “no whining or complaining, no excuses, just put my shoulder to the wheel and keep it there for ten hours a day.” Learning to be a good worker, one of value to future employers. Who wants to hire slackers and stoners? You’re not sure they will show up, and even if they do, you’re not sure they are all there. The non-skilled jobs, especially the higher paid non-skilled jobs, will be replaced by technology. It doesn’t have to be a robot. For example, the McJob of listening to a customer’s order and typing it into a kiosk and taking their money? A kiosk will do that for free. Anybody in a minimum wage job who wants more money should upgrade their skills, preferably starting with paying attention in high school.

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  9. Love it. I spent a summer as a “gandy dancer” building railroad tracks at the munificent emolument of $2.40/ hour at a time when the minimum wage was $1.60/hour. Carrying those rails and ties and driving spikes was, far and away, the toughest labor I ever did. After the first day, I wasn’t at all sure I could do the work.

    Reflecting on the thought of being out there in the middle of winter, I decided that college might not be a bad idea after all.

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  10. My word, Willis, we have another thing in common.

    Hay-baling was also one of my first jobs, during the High School mid-summer holidays (January here in NZ, and I think you call the break a “vacation”).

    You describe a procedure little different from the way we did it. I weighed nine stone at the time – that’s 126 pounds. When the crop was lucerne, the bloody bales were heavier than I.

    When I first started, the hay-baling contractor had invested in an elevator for the bales. He had decided to employ school-boys as an experiment, and figured we wouldn’t be strong enough to throw the bales up to the deck of the truck.

    The elevator was an endless belt on a sloped metal tray, with a mouth at the bottom that guided in the bales. It hung on the side of the truck, and the man (boy) on the ground had to to line up the bales on the grass so that the elevator could pick them up. They went up the sloped belt and the boys on the deck then stacked them.

    We started out on the first day. At lunchtime, one of the old hands told us how they used to load the bales before they had an elevator. Show me, I said, so we went to the parked truck, and he showed me how to get the right rhythm. We all had a bit of a confab, and disconnected the elevator. Truth is, throwing the bales manually was easier and faster than stooping over all day at ground level lining them up. The contractor was philosophical about his wasted investment. We were more productive without it, so it was simply a sunk cost.

    There was another bonus, as well. By the time we went back to school, we were already fit to play rugby.

    My other school holiday job was in winter, in the bacteriology laboratory at Kaitaia Hospital, doing tests of blood and other bodily fluids. In a small town, that taught me about the necessity of discretion -but that’s another story.

    Best

    JJ

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  11. I shared many of the same experiences growing up. Moving & laying sprinkler pipe, burning weeds, clearing irrigation ditches, baleing hay & loading hay wagons. I must say that I never have regretted the experience, except for the dust & chaff.

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  12. I baled hay my sophmore year in HS in Spring, TX in order to get in shape for football season.
    Doggone hot ~100 F. sweated out 8-10 lbs a day.
    The worst part was fire ants and snakes.

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  13. Makes me remember my apprenticeship in a motor vehicle workshop, the first year you swept the floor cleaned and put away the tools fetched this took that there and sometimes got to do something on a motor.
    Went to college to learn the technical stuff of how and why things worked but the workshop was where you learnt the trade of fixing things. Trying to get young people today to start with the simple things and work up to doing what the experienced are doing can be very hard.
    My pay per week for all my efforts in 1976 was £14 and from that I paid my mum house keeping of £5
    Seeing so many come out of University having been promised high paid jobs with which to pay back their student loans only to find there’s nothing there and many employers won’t take them on because they are over qualified is so sad to see.

    James Bull

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  14. Your central argument here is false. At the age of 14, whether in the US or Europe, whether 1n the 1960s/70s or today, any minimum wage does not and never did apply. At that age you are earning pocket money as you are still legally dependent on others. Legal minimum wage applies to non-dependents to ensure they cannot be exploited.

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    • Perhaps where you live that is true. In California it is NOT true. There is a slightly lower minimum wage for “learners” for the first month, and that’s the only concession. Instead of having to pay “learners” $11.00 per hour, you have to pay them 85% of that, $9.35 per hour. And so my central argument is true, true, true. Here’s how it works.

      The state of California has specified a minimum wage that employers are required to pay. This minimum wage extends to minor-aged workers. As of January 1, 2017, employers with 25 workers or less must pay their employees at least $10.00 for each hour they work. [January 1 2019 it went to $11.00 for each hour worked]. Those employing 26 workers or more are required to pay a minimum wage of $10.50 [$12 in 2019] per hour. Neglecting to pay teens these wages may be considered a wage and hour law violation.

      Nor is there any exception for being “dependent on others”, nor when one is earning “pocket money”.

      Finally, I gave every penny I earned to my mom, and she spent it on necessities for the family, so you can stuff your fantasies about “pocket money”.

      You should do more homework and depend less of belief …

      w.

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    • As you might expect, there is a Wikipedia page for that:
      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_minimum_wages_by_country

      Cuba has a minimum wage of 5 cents. Venezuela is (was at last update) 3 cents.

      The so-called socialist countries in Scandinavia do not have minimum wage laws. Instead, it’s whatever the union agreement says. Some other countries in Europe are similar.

      It’s complicated.

      For more on Denmark:
      https://www.quora.com/What-is-the-minimum-wage-in-Denmark

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