Labor Day was established as a Federal holiday in 1894 during a time of strife throughout America’s workforce. The average American worker pulled 12-hour shifts, seven days a week and children as young as 5 and 6 years old were put to work in mills, mines and factories to feed the insatiable machinery of the Industrial Revolution.
The Pullman Strike shut down railroads nationwide, leading to clashes between federal troops and railroad workers that left 30 dead. An unsuccessful strike involving up to 200,000 coal miners lead to even greater mistrust between labor and management. Working conditions were rife with hazards and breaks were non-existent.
Things have changed a great deal since then. A holiday that once commemorated a progressive act of defiance has become synonymous with beer, barbecues, and soaking in the last rays of summer. Yet just because American workers are no longer risking their lives at work doesn’t mean that the perils of employment no longer exist. In the 21st century, there’s a whole different set of labor issues that plague John and Jane Q. Public. They may not be as overtly sinister, but they’re every bit as real.
While the large number of people performing physically strenuous and dangerous jobs still deserve our respect, the new heroes of Labor Day are more likely to be toiling away in hot kitchens surrounded by annoying co-workers for little pay. They’re the people who followed a path of service and integrity down a road that lead to low wages and stress. They’re the travel agents sitting by the phone, eager to accept your call. The men and women who work in the professions on this list are the reason the rest of us get the first Monday in September off of work. If you see one this weekend, buy them a beer; it’s entirely possible they can’t afford one.
Lumberjack/ Logging worker
Those who work in the logging profession are the modern equivalent of the mining workers in the late 19th century who toiled away in dangerous underground environments for little pay. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics‘ National Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries, logging workers surpassed fishers as the deadliest profession in 2012, with 62 loggers killed last year, a rate of 127.8 per 100,000 workers. Combine that with an average yearly pay of just $35,149, and lumberjack was listed as the second worst job of 2013 on the annual CareerCast.com Jobs Rated report. Hopefully as they’re chopping down trees, lumberjacks will be reminded that they don’t have the absolute worst job in America…
Stick with me because this might sound improbable, but I assure you it’s true: there was a time, not long ago in fact, when all written news was physically printed onto paper. “Newspapers,” they were called. If you look up from your smartphone while walking down the street, you may still see a stack tucked away inside a colored box, or “newsstand.” You could get one — again, bear with me — by putting coins into a slot that would trigger a mechanism, unlocking the box. I know this might sound bizarre, but I swear it’s true.
I kid because, as an online writer, I’m typing this sentence from home in my pajamas. But the decline of newspapers does raise troubling questions about the state of journalism as it transitions toward digital. A six percent decline in job growth is expected for newspaper reporters through 2020 and with a median salary of only $36,000, not to mention the high level of stress endemic to the profession, fewer aspiring journalists are likely to pursue a career in the field. Sad, really, when you think about…oh my goodness, look at the picture of these bunnies! Sooo cute!
As a general rule, if your job title actually includes the word “labor” in it, it’s most likely not going to be fun (ice cream laboratory food tester notwithstanding). Construction laborers obviously have a physically demanding job, but even those who work in skilled trades like roofers, electrical power-line installers and repairers, or structural iron and steel workers are subject to dangerous working conditions, as all were listed among the 10 deadliest jobs of 2012.
Even if you aren’t maimed or killed on the job, you probably can’t stand your colleagues, as installation, maintenance and repair jobs topped Payscale’s list for worst coworkers. Perhaps you should go the Harrison Ford route and quit construction to pursue an acting career. Oh wait…
Admit it: after your middle-school performance in “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” brought down the house, you seriously entertained the idea of a career in the entertainment industry. Instead, you settled on a job as an actuary. Despite having the “best job in America,” your unique talents demand to be shared with the world. So you leave your family and comfortable life behind and head out to Hollywood, where you finally get your big break…earning $17.44/hour.
Yes, despite a thousand movies that have portrayed actors as both glamorous and wealthy, actor came in fourth on this year’s list of worst jobs and the average hourly wage of an actor just barely covers the cost of a movie ticket. No problem, you’ll just get into modeling, the acting profession’s less talented cousin. Perfect if you don’t mind scraping by on an annual salary of $27,890. What’s a man who abandoned his wife, children and the perfect job left to do out on the hard streets of Los Angeles? Wait tables, of course.
Food service workers
People who work in the food service industry are fond of saying that everyone should wait tables at some point to better understand just how challenging their secretly stressful profession really is. Oh dear Lord, no; DO NOT work in food service unless you’ve reached the point of abject desperation. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, six of the seven lowest paying jobs in America are in the food service industry, along with the second worst coworkers. Working in the service industry is enough to make you want to go out there and shoot something. Don’t worry, there’s a crappy job for that too!
The fact that enlisted military personnel have the most stressful job in America is not surprising (putting your life on the line at work tends to cause just slightly more aggravation than a case of the Monday’s). The fact that it’s listed as the third worst job overall, however, is more troubling. The men and women risking their lives in defense of our nation deserve far better remuneration than a median salary of $41,998 (and that’s after 8 years of service). The discrepancy between the important services provided by those in the field and the compensation they earn is an issue that needs to be addressed, and soon.
Ever noticed how the people in expensive business suits scuttling in and out of the tallest buildings downtown always seem to be wearing a scowl? In addition to protecting their identities as crime fighters and vigilantes, the tortured look plastered onto their faces underscores a simple but often overlooked fact about life in corporate boardrooms; the work they do is no fun at all.
CareerBliss’ list of the unhappiest jobs in America was topped by associate attorney, a job with an annual salary in excess of six-figures. Legal assistant, technical support specialist and marketing coordinator all made the top ten. Perhaps most distressing of all, chief executive was listed as merely the tenth best-paying job of 2013, a full nine spots below their top ranking in the list of jobs most likely to cost you your life in the impending class war.
Life as a healthcare professional in America is about as good as it gets. The nine best-paying jobs of 2013 were all in the healthcare field, lead by anesthesiologists, who earn an average of $232,830 annually. Medical professionals have incredible job security and relocation options, they perform life-saving work, and, based on some of America’s most popular TV shows, have an incredible array of sexy doctors to hook up with.
So why are RNs listed as the fourth unhappiest profession? Perhaps it comes down to annoying coworkers. Healthcare support jobs and healthcare practitioner and technical support jobs came in sixth and fifth on the list of worst coworkers, respectively. Maybe they’re jealous of the anesthesiologists who twist a couple of knobs on a gas tank and take home more in an hour than they’ll make in a day. Or it could be a result of the affair they had with Dr. McDreamy that soured after he stood them up, YET AGAIN, this time while they were in state of emotional fragility due to dramatic developments around a tampered clinical trial that may hold the cure for their mother’s Alzheimer’s. Probably one of those three things.
If you’re one of the 13,570 people currently employed as a shampooer, congratulations, you have the worst paying job in America. You make just $8.94 per hour ($18,600 annually) and for some odd reason, you’re allowed to wash people’s hair but not cut it. That probably has something to do with Becky, your evil B-word of a boss and the other employees at the salon, scientifically proven to be among the worst coworkers one can have. Your dream of becoming a shampooist was hatched from a place of purity, but now that you’ve seen the dark side of the industry, your innocence has been washed down the drain like flakes from a dry scalp. While your dream may be shattered, at least your life has purpose. At least you’re not a…
There’s a special kind of malaise that comes from working a useless job. The frustrations that go along with a career in education (low-pay, long hours) are buttressed in part by the comfort of knowing you’re doing important work that touches lives. Not so with the sign spinner, telephone operator or data entry clerk. The rationalizations that come with those types of jobs most likely begin and end with the word “paycheck.”
And then there are travel agents. Before the rise of sites like Priceline and its ilk, they performed a valuable service, offering customers discounts on travel packages and assembling itineraries whose pieces formed a puzzle of lasting memories. With the convenience and ease with which we’re now able to accomplish those tasks on our own, the travel agent has become sad shorthand for careers headed toward extinction. Just ask Liz Lemon.
If you’re under the age of 12 or were able to maintain the innocent childhood magic of Christmas well into adulthood, stop reading now because we’ve got some MAJOR SPOILERS for you: Santa Claus is not real. He’s an icon, an archetype, an angel to some, but he does not exist. People — usually, though not always, portly males over the age of 60 — are paid to dress in his image and spread holiday cheer to children in the mall who are so naive, they’re blind to the gifts being purchased all around them. With the notable exception of the central character of a certain film, mall Santa’s have a pretty good gig; they sit around on the job and get their pictures taken all day while listening to small kids wax rhapsodically about their favorite toys. Santa’s elves, on the other hand? Their job sucks.
The job itself basically consists of kiddie wrangling, matching photos with families, and putting a cheerful face on the horrors of indentured servitude. Unlike Santa, who can command a healthy salary based on physical resemblance, his elves typically only pull in minimum wage while wearing the most embarrassing outfits of the holiday season (not counting ugly Christmas sweaters). The glory and praise bestowed upon Santa is rarely shared among his helpers; being Santa’s elf means putting in twice the work for half the pay, which is why it’s listed among the worst jobs of the holiday season.
Shark suit tester
As the host of the Discovery Channel’s “Dirty Jobs,” Mike Rowe performed just about every weird, gross and terrible job possible over the course of eight seasons. In a 2008 interview with Bill O’Reilly, Rowe outlined several of his worst experiences, and several involved animals. With all due respect to all the chicken sexers, snake wranglers and horse inseminators out there, shark suit tester struck me as the bottom of the barrel.
As Rowe pointed out, the stakes for this job are as high as they can get. “You put on the suit; you hop in the water; you create a bloodbath of chum,” he explained. “The sharks come in, and you let them bite you. If you live, the suit works. If you don’t, it’s unfortunate.”
Yes, unfortunate. Rowe claimed to still have a “hole” somewhere on his body as a result of the testing, although, tragically, O’Reilly declined his offer to show it off. Yet the work these brave men and women do is vitally important; if it wasn’t for them, the ability of scuba divers to mess with these magnificent predators would be greatly diminished.
The British television show “The Worst Jobs in History” detailed awful ways to make a living throughout various eras of civilization. Historically, 9 to 5-ers have had to weigh unpleasant career options like executioner, chimney sweep, rat-catcher, and leech collector, all for terrible wages. Yet all of those jobs seem downright cushy compared to one ancient profession: sin-eater.
At first glance, the title of sin-eater sounds kind of cool, like a Dark Ages priest who battles evil demons or something. Unfortunately, this particular professional designation is all too literal, as sin-eaters ate items placed upon the bodies of the recently deceased in a ritual intended to absolve the departed of their sins, freeing them in the afterlife. Not surprisingly, sin-eaters were considered to be among the lowest members of the English villages where the practice took place, regarded with suspicion and contempt for all the yummy sins they gobbled up over the years.
Amazon warehouse employee
Just as sin-eaters absorbed the moral transgressions of the dead, warehouse employees for Amazon are willing to crush their souls little by little so that we might enjoy 30 percent off an impressive variety of retail items. Several recent reports have detailed disturbing working conditions at their warehouses in Britain, appalling not because of an unsafe environment but because of the dehumanization of their employees thanks to new technologies.
Describing employees as “human robots,” a scathing report from The Daily Mail earlier this year outlined conditions for temporary workers that included walking between seven and 15 miles per shift, using mobile devices that measured their productivity at all times, and being subjected to scans prior to bathroom breaks that check employees for theft. Although Amazon recently purchased a company that makes actual robots, they find the human touch useful for “coping with the vast array of differently shaped products the company sells.” The scariest part about this corporate hellscape? The fact that Amazon recently announced they’re building more warehouses here in the U.S.
Indian sewer cleaner
As we reach the end of the list, it’s time for a bit of perspective; no matter what job you work in America, consider yourself lucky. There are strictly enforced regulations on hours worked, safety conditions, and pay. These concepts are foreign to many other parts of the world. Take India, for example. Two women there claim they should be in the “Guinness Book of World Records” for lowest salary after earning just 80 Euros in 40 years. Their job? Cleaning toilets at the Government’s Women Teacher’s Training Institute in Southern India.
And then there’s this guy. Working for the sanitation department (nothing good ever begins with that phrase), his job is to climb down manholes and clean out blocked sewer lines. But, despite guidelines, he’s not put into a hazmat suit or given a breathing mask by the government hired contractor who employs him — he just climbs down shirtless into the dark and does whatever is asked of him. We can whine and complain all we want about our work here in the States (and we’re really good at that), but the fact is we should all feel lucky; no matter how low-paying or stressful our jobs are, we will never have to put up with the sh*t this poor guy deals with.