Ask most workers in America, and chances are they’ll tell you they’re underpaid and overworked. In one famous 2004 incident, NBA star Latrell Sprewell publicly rejected a 3-year, $21 million contract offer from his team, saying, “I have a family to feed.” On the other hand, one could make the theoretical argument that few people are underpaid. Workers tend to earn as much as their talents and work experience dictates; if they’re unhappy in their current job, they’re free to work elsewhere. In reality, however, millions of workers are trapped by their circumstances, sometimes forced to take low-paying jobs they don’t want, and for which they’re overqualified, to make ends meet. Certain other jobs offer better pay, but many people would consider the salary low considering the job conditions. That said, here are the top 10 most underpaid jobs in the United States (salaries listed are the national median wage, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics).
10. Home Health Aide ($9.89/hour)
When your loved one has a stroke, multiple sclerosis or another debilitating illness and you need help caring for them, home health aides come to the rescue, moving the patient to prevent bed sores, changing diapers or emptying bedpans and dressing wounds. They provide companionship not only for the sick, but also for others in the household who may be struggling emotionally with their loved one’s illness. That’s quite a bargain for a national median hourly wage of less than $10 per hour.
9. Medical Intern ($38,000/year)
Surprised to see them on this list? Forget the images you probably have of handsome or beautiful interns on TV shows such as ER and Grey’s Anatomy. What producers don’t show you are the years full of 36-hour shifts (and 80-hour work weeks) the stress and the low pay that breaks down to less than $10 per hour. Sure, interns can look forward to a lucrative career — and a small fortune in student debt — but that doesn’t make those overnight shifts any easier.
8. Police Officer ($53,540/year)
We detailed in a recent Listosaur story the dangers of this job: according to FBI statistics, 128 officers were killed in the line of duty in 2010, and another 53,000 were assaulted on the job. It’s certainly one of the most stressful jobs. And although it’s the highest paying job on this list, rookies have it tough, starting out around $30,000 in many jurisdictions.
7. Emergency Medical Technician ($30,360/year)
Considering they are the first responders whose actions can literally sometimes mean the difference between life and death, it’s very surprising that EMTs earn a median hourly wage of $14.60 (the Bureau of Labor Statistics does not differentiate between the pay for basic EMTs and the more highly trained and better-paid paramedics).
6. Elementary and Secondary School Teacher ($33,530/year)
Teachers make almost every list of this type. Some pundits contend that’s not a bad annual wage for someone who gets more than two months off every year. One caveat here: there are many bad teachers around the country who are overpaid, and should probably not even be teaching, but powerful teachers unions help keep them gainfully employed. Yet for the teachers who are good at their job, shouldn’t these people who spend 180 to 200 days out of the year teaching, molding and encouraging our children make substantially more than pizza delivery persons (who earn about $12 per hour)?
5. Substance Abuse Counselor ($38,120/year)
Social work in general is one of the worst-paying professions that require a college degree. Within that field, certain specialties fare even worse. Substance abuse counselors earn a few thousand less per year than the average counselor. For that unprincely sum, substance abuse counselors deal with many clients who are clearly beyond help. Even worse, many clients do not even want a counselor’s help, but have been forced to undergo counseling through a court-imposed sentencing.
4. Taxi Driver ($10.79/hour)
They work at night, alone, carry cash and pick up and drop off customers in high-crime areas. That makes them human targets. Taxi drivers may not have the worst job in America, but it’s certainly one of the most dangerous. According to TaxiLibrary.org, an average of 35 cabdrivers were killed on duty in the U.S. each year between 2000-2009. That doesn’t take into account the untold number of taxi drivers who are robbed and/or assaulted each year. The extreme risk inherent in the job, along with the low pay explains why the majority of cab drivers are recent immigrants, who move on to another occupation when they’re able.
3. Childcare Worker ($9.28/hour)
Picture this: You’re stuck in a room all day in a room full of children. You change dirty diapers, put up with tantrums, clean up messes and pick up toys. All this for about $9 per hour. If you’re interested, there are always openings, for obvious reasons. A special mention should go here to preschool teachers, who, although they are a little better paid than daycare workers, and their environment is better — no more dirty diapers, for instance — bear more responsibility in preparing children for kindergarten.
2. Slaughterhouse Worker ($11.60/hour)
The work is grueling, extremely dangerous and anyone with a weak stomach need not apply. Workers often accidentally stab themselves, or each other, hacking and slicing with their sharp knives, trying to keep up with the relentless pace of the production line. Repetitive-motion injuries and other physical problems are common, but often go undiagnosed. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, it is the most dangerous occupation in the U.S. And always, always, there is blood, guts and the stench of death. For young women, the story is worse, as supervisors routinely grant work privileges for special “favors.” No wonder many meatpacking plants have a workforce full of recent immigrants and a turnover rate of well over 100 percent.
1. Migrant Farmworker (Below Minimum Wage)
First off, “migrant farmworker” has become a code phrase for “illegal immigrant.” And illegal immigrants make up almost three-quarters of this workforce because American citizens refuse to perform the work. Don’t believe it? In 2010, with the unemployment rate around 10 percent, the United Farm Workers union launched a campaign, “Take Our Jobs,” seeking Americans to work in the fields. There were only a few dozen serious applicants. It is monotonous, physical labor, often performed in scorching temperatures, and it pays minimum wage. Actually, it’s worst than that, as small farms in more than dozen states are exempt from minimum wage laws. “I think everybody in our society is pretty clear that the least desirable job in the U.S. is being a migrant farm worker,” Rob Williams, director of the Migrant Farm Worker Justice Project, told CNN in 2010.