The last five years have left me with a very complicated relationship with compensation-for-work. From a field where internship culture is overwhelming (politics) to one where unpaid practica and volunteerism are part of what sustains the system (public libraries) to working for myself in a caring profession (doula) right on down through my last "job" in which I was really an expenses-reimbursed volunteer and my current creative pursuits, I'm acutely aware that unpaid or underpaid labor keeps a lot of important doors open and a great many fundamental wheels turning.
My time as a doula was probably the period where I felt it most intensely. It's hard to get started as a doula; even in training, you're often on your own to find clients and complete your required observation hours. If you're lucky you have a mentor or at least a partner (I had both), but in less populated areas, even those might be hard to come by.
Experienced doulas love the phrase "charge what you're worth," and I think it's important. That newbies tend to seek their first few clients by undercutting local rates is a problem for everyone (newbies aren't getting good mentorship, experienced doulas can't keep working, and birthing families aren't getting the experienced support they need because they consider it overpriced). But at the same time, we live in a culture where we generally assume that the early years in your career will be vastly underpaid, if they're paid at all. You can't start out charging the same thing those with experience are charging, but even the experienced doulas aren't charging enough to make it worth their time, in many cases.
Ultimately, when I calculated my actual expenses and active work time (not including time on call, time in preparation, etc) for doula work, I found that to get anywhere close to averaging minimum wage just for those in-person, high-intensity work hours, I'd need to charge $850 per birth. Given that I was having a hard time finding people willing to pay the $450 I'd been charging, this was a big part of why I quit doing birth support. I simply couldn't afford it, and for all that it is something I enjoy doing, passion doesn't pay for parking, or hospital cafeterias, or supplies, or the resources it took to fill the energy gap while I recovered from long births. Even with G's income subsidizing our rent and groceries and car payments and other necessities, I couldn't even pay for the things required for me to do the job. It just didn't work.
If I'd been angry about work-for-free culture before that (and I was), I was more angry as I came out of that world. It was a good, hard look at how deep it goes. And yet, I also care about communities. I work with non-profits and community organizations, and I'm an active volunteer, even though I know a lot of the time volunteers are doing work that should really be compensated. I'm also a housewife. I do a great deal of work for very little quantifiable compensation, and most of the time, I do it because it's important and it needs to be done.
Obviously, there's a little bit of dissonance there. I have a few guidelines for choosing roles; among them is considering whether I would be willing to pay myself the cost of my time at a fair pay rate. If I work for three hours in the museum, is it worth the $60 or so it would cost to pay someone with my skills and experience to do the same work for those hours? If not, I don't do it anymore. I know the museum can't afford to pay me, because the city doesn't budget enough for them to pay more than a handful of people, and the city doesn't have the budget because not enough people think the museums are important. I get it; I know it's a chain of refusal that keeps the money at bay.
I wonder sometimes whether the presence of volunteers keeps people from valuing the jobs they do and thereby keeps the money from coming in--or rather I know, but I wonder about degrees. I know that when I decided my previous jobs weren't worth what they were costing me, the relevant businesses collapsed. I know, too, that if volunteers disappeared from the city museums and libraries, they would be forced to drastically cut services.
What I wonder, I suppose, is whether the city would miss those things enough to be willing to revive them. Rather than staggering along on the good will of people willing to donate time, would they be helped to stand again? There's no way to know without trying it, though, and in the process we'd lose services that are vital to a great many vulnerable people.
And so, the question stands. If for-profit companies aren't paying fair wages, and nobody's making them, how can we expect non-profits and community services to do it?
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