For New Year’s Eve, I went to a house party hosted by a married couple. The couple is about my age, married, and employed. She’s a high school English teacher; he’s a self-described garbage man.
Everyone at the party was employed, with the exception of me and one other law student. Everyone was committed to engaging in the polite small talk that comes with talking to students – how far along are you, when will you finish, what will you do when you graduate? It seemed they all shared the belief that upon graduation, we would immediately become attorneys with more money than we knew what to do with.
Rapidly losing patience with this kind of conversation, as I typically do, I thought a little dose of reality might curtail the discussion. So I threw out the starting salary for Assistant State’s Attorneys in my hometown ($40,000). The husband started laughing. “Hell,” he said, “I make more than that a year and I ride around on the back of a garbage truck.” Against my better judgment, I asked how much. $55,000.
He went on to tell us how some days his job isn’t so bad. In the springtime he spends the whole day outside, enjoying the weather. Around Christmas, the people on his route gave him liquor and cash and gifts. I’m sure the days it’s raining or snowing or 100 degrees are a different story.
While he was talking, it occurred to me that there is a very real chance I would be better off as a trash collector than a law student. I’ve spent seven years in school, paying to be there. I could’ve spent those same seven years earning a paycheck, benefits, maybe even a pension, somewhere. Without going to school, you don’t have student loans. So I’d have saved the time and the money, while making money.
The garbage man hours aren’t too bad either. Not many trash collectors are putting in 60 and 70 hour work weeks. Not to mention the rules for the profession. There’s no Sanitation Worker Registration and Disciplinary Committee. There are no ethics involved in refuse collection. Your garbage man has no obligation to keep your secrets or solve your problems. There probably aren’t rules saying garbage men can only ethically accept token gifts and not substantial ones. The closest they get to putting your crap in separate funds is if you recycle.
This sanitation worker versus Assistant State’s Attorney pay ratio isn’t just a “back home” or “small town” thing. Using Cook County (Chicago) as an example, the starting salary for an assistant state’s attorney is $59,340. The average salary for a Motor Truck Driver for the Department of Streets and Sanitation (their version of a garbage man) is $70,503. In case you thought that Motor Truck Driver salary might be a fluke, the average Tree Trimmer is making $67,786, and the average Sanitation Laborer is making $65,894. In fact, for the whole Department of Streets and Sanitation, the average salary is $67,451. That’s over $8,000 more a year than an Assistant State’s Attorney, starting out. Maybe I should’ve been a garbage collector.
At some point during our conversation, I’d started shaking my head and staring at my feet, like my silver Guess Neodany heels might have something to say about the whole thing. Mr. Garbage Man interrupted my musing by stating the obvious, “You could hop on the back of the truck with me and make more money.” Then he followed my eyes down to my shoes and said, “Well, you’re gonna have to change your shoes first.”
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