July 7, 2021

What’s a fair wage for youth workers?

             Yes, I know.

            Times are different.

            This is 2021 in the 21st century.

            Even though this is a new era, I couldn’t keep quiet. What I was hearing sounded like lunacy.

            “But Mom, my friend charges $35 per hour to run errands and do special jobs,” the rising high school senior said. “And he has a list of clients.  He stays busy all the time.”

            Paying a teenager almost five times the federal minimum wage sounds like lunacy to me.  But that’s happening this summer.  And it’s not the kids’ fault. It’s the adults.  These people are setting up teenagers for a real-world awakening.    

            My first public job was at the stockyard.  My friend Steve Strickland and I were the ripe old age of 8.  His granddaddy paid us two bucks a day for punching livestock off trucks and trailers.  Our first foray into the “stock market” was when we pooled $4 and bought ourselves a goat.  First our money was gone.  A few days later our goat was gone, too.

            And then came my grass-mowing business.  A down-the-street neighbor’s yard was 2 acres with a pair of ponds.  I mowed all day.  When Mother asked how much I charged, I answered, “Six bucks.” She gulped and said, “Why, for someone your age, that’s twice what you should have charged.”

            “But Mother,” I said, “it was my lawn mower, my gas, and it took me all day.”

            “Doesn’t matter,” she said.  “You charged too much.  You need to walk down to Mrs. Milikin’s house and give her back $3.”

            Further debate wasn’t an option.  I walked down the street and rang the doorbell.  When my customer came to the door, I said, “Please forgive me, Mrs. Milikin. I charged too much.”  And I handed her three sweaty dollar bills.  My ambition for the grass-mowing business ran “out of gas” shortly thereafter.

            And, yes, I know: “Never say never.”

            Fast-forward 60 years, and I’m back in the grass-mowing business.  Three bucks would be big money compared to what I’m getting paid these days.  Maybe I should clarify.  I have only one customer: our farm.  Most weeks—during the growing season—I can easily spend 10 hours mowing.  

But ahhhhh, what a difference a half-dozen decades make equipment-wise.  My 24-inch push mower is buried beneath tons of garbage in the Goose Creek dump.  

Hello, diesel-powered zero-turn mowers.

            In the early 1980s, I stopped by Billy Poppell’s Datsun dealership to sell him a series of newspaper ads.  He was a good customer.  But on that day, he wanted to sell me on a revolutionary way to mow.  A stickler for landscaping, Billy kept his yard pristine.  

That morning, Billy climbed on his brand-new zero-turn mower.  And zoom, he was off to the races.  He mowed forward and backwards.  When he trimmed around trees, a ballerina couldn’t have spun more gracefully.  

Even today, those images stick with me.  

I’m like a kid on a grass-cutting go-cart.  Spinning around trees is fun.  Last Saturday, I wondered how fast I could have cut Mrs. Milikin’s 2-acre lawn in today’s 60-inch swaths.

Then I wondered how much Mother would have thought the job was worth.  Considering the short length of time, 50 cents. Probably.

And she’d never—I mean ever—believe 2021 kids would expect to make $35 per hour.

Now back to that 17-year-old with dollar marks in his eyes.

He didn’t say it.  But when he rolled those eyes, I knew what he was thinking: “Grandpa, you are looney.”

Maybe I am.