A Look at Inequality from a Temp Job in Payroll

I had a temp job today that was kind of cool. It paid more than the mailings they’ve sent me on before, though it’s in Renton with an hour commute (would be 90 minutes on 2-3 buses from the building SHA wants to put me in). It was at a payroll company whose office suggests they’re new or expanding. The other temp and I had to enter a bunch of payroll data for about 100 employees at a yacht club. I was slower and clumsier than usual with my cast, but numbers and data entry are up my alley, as temping goes anyway. Memorizing random numbers is easy for me. My coworker was bored to death by it, and I think made more errors than I did. It’s not as meaningful as social justice work, or as exciting as a lot of other jobs, but I found it at least tolerable–if I kept doing the same thing and got in a groove, it’s something I could do while listening to podcasts or audiobooks. I was tempted to offer that I’d be happy to return if they wanted. There’s a lot of making sure numbers on the page match what you enter(ed) in the computer, then some less fun reconciliation when they run the aggregate report, and you have to hunt down various errors. (In one case, we were a penny off on someone’s Medicare deduction, but we didn’t know whose) They had 3 rounds of paychecks to enter for this client, and they didn’t seem to know how far we’d get. We finished 2, the second one much more quickly.

Of course I’d never heard of the client or any of the employees, but it was telling, validating, and disconcerting to see up close what we already know and experience of the larger economy. The pay, benefits, and I think job security were very pyramidal–lots and lots of people at the bottom, very few at the top far above them. This place must not be in Seattle or SeaTac based on many of the wages. They had a bunch of sailing instructors earning what struck me as a surprisingly or dangerously low wage considering the importance and safety issues involved in sailing (I assume–I can’t even swim). These people earn above the poverty line but definitely not enough to live on in Greater Seattle. Lots of $10-15 an hour. A few servers/bartenders make low wages and rely more on tips, but they still don’t come out much better. A few people make about $15-22 an hour, which is better but still too little, and too few workers make that. Then there is the small handful of more professional workers on salary. They might start around $35,000, but what jumps out at me is the very few people who get almost $100,000. Or the guy (you can’t be surprised it’s a man) who makes ~$125,000. I don’t know their family or financial situations of course, but that kind of money strikes me as having it made. They can afford all kinds of things and not have to worry about money. They can basically afford the best of everything this country has to buy. But I have a hard time understanding how a couple people deserve 6 figures while many more of their workers are barely above minimum wage. It shows up in the deductions too, which must hint at their qualities of life. The low-wage people mostly just have workers’ comp at about $1/paycheck, and federal income and payroll tax. As you get into the white collar people and highest earners, they have those plus 401(k)s–Roth and conventional–health insurance premiums, medical savings accounts, bonuses, 401(k) loans, probably more vacation time… Not only is their pay better, but their benefits are much better, and with the ability to save or invest for different purposes or lengths of time (in tax-advantaged instruments!), they’ll also remain secure in the future. It’s as economically myopic as it is morally wrong and cruel. Part of me is tempted to redistribute numbers from higher to lower paid workers. Of course, your job in payroll is just the opposite; total accuracy. The one partial comfort is the progressive income tax, where poorer employees have little withheld, and I feel safe assuming that when someone has a lot of withholding, it’s because they can afford it and deserve to pay that. But ultimately, we need Bernie Sanders. At this point, as fucked as we are, he is this country’s last best hope.

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