should I work long hours for low pay in order to get experience?

A reader writes:

I have a question regarding my first “real” job. I recently had a second interview for a company that went really well. My interviewer and I developed a real rapport, and I think I’d really like the people I’d be working with.

The problem is, the job is really, really low pay for really, really long hours. I’m a hard worker and willing to put in time and effort, but the math works out to less than minimum wage in an expensive city. I’ll probably need food stamps just to get by. And the hours – even if I wanted to get a second job tending bar or something to pay the bills, I would literally not have the time. Unless I actually didn’t sleep and stayed awake through shots of Red Bull. It’s long, long, hours.

My question is do I take the job if offered? I haven’t had any success with my job search (the numbers are just depressing, so I’ll spare you) and I would feel guilty, and somewhat desperate, if I turned down a resume-building job. I’ve asked several people, though, and they think the company would just be taking advantage of me.

What do you think would be the lesser of two evils? Taking the job and sucking it up for a year, or continuing my search with the chance I may not have another opportunity for quite some time?

The answer is … I don’t know. Only you can decide if what they’re paying you and the experience you’d get is worth it.

But I can suggest that you see if you can turn the offer into a better one. For instance, you could tell the company that you’re really excited about the work, but given the salary, you don’t think you could swing those hours, since you’d need to take on side work to supplement your income. Would they be willing to let you work more reasonable hours in light of the pay? Or, in light of the hours, will they negotiate on pay? At a minimum, even if you ultimately decide to take the job as it currently stands, you want to at least ask about these things. Sometimes people are very willing to negotiate.

And if they say no to that, maybe you want to ask them if they’d consider part-time work at lower pay — so that you’re working fewer hours, leaving you time to take on other work, but you’re still getting the experience that will eventually help you move on to something else.

It’s completely okay to ask about these kinds of options. The answer may end up being no, but you shouldn’t have qualms about raising the questions — especially given the low pay. They may know that the pay is ridiculous but financially have no choice, and they might be relieved at some creative suggestions.

I’m also curious to know what the work is and why the pay is so low. Is the company or work prestigious? Is it a nonprofit?  Is this the market rate for this work, or is the company offering far less than other employers for similar work?  (And if you don’t know if it’s market rate or not, start doing some research; that’s information you want to have.)

In other words, is there some reasonable narrative explaining why the pay is what it is? There are some reasons to accept less than market rate pay, like the ones above, but you want to know that’s what’s going on, so you’re making the choice deliberately.

Good luck!

Read updates to this letter here and here.

{ 17 comments… read them below }

  1. Anonymous*

    The short answer is "no." If they want to pay you less than minimum wage, that is illegal. End of story.

  2. Reva*

    I agree that if it works out to less than minimum wage you should NOT take the job. There are definitely ways to work around it as AAM suggests and I would ask them those questions. Speaking from experience, it is amazing how much damage ONE year can do to you financially so I would NOT take it unless you have the chance for a 2nd job.

  3. Anonymous*

    I was there a year ago. I have a degree in English and was looking for work in journalism. I had all these lofty sounding statements for when people asked why I would want to do that to myself – "it's a public service, the money doesn't matter," "if I can help foster justice in a town, then it's worth it," etc. – and I interviewed for a few positions.

    One offered me a job for $22,000/year before taxes in a medium sized city. They informed me that I would be required to work 55 hours per week and, as the newbie on staff, would most likely be forced to work another 18-20 on weekends so a second job was out of the question.

    After doing the math there was no way I could survive on that salary, and due to the state of the industry there was no way they could offer me more money or less hours. So I turned them down and reexamined my job search.

    Please don't feel guilty or desperate if you end up turning this position down even if it is resume-building. It's not worth it to make yourself sick thinking about your finances.

  4. Debbie*

    I was once in a similar situation–low pay, long hours, pricey city–and took the job (for my job, it wasn't illegal to work under minimum wage because it was through an Americorps program – at one point, I was making $2.75 per hour…yeah didn't like that). Pay and hours weren't negotiable as all corps members were paid the same and worked the same hours.

    I will tell you right now – it was not worth it. I wound up taking a second job because the process of getting food stamps was long and painful (they deliberately make getting social services difficult, I'm sure) and barely had enough time to eat or sleep. The second job definitely helped financially, but emotionally, it was beyond exhausting. When you wake at 6:30am and don't get off work until 11pm, and your weekends are shot in terms of catching up on sleep since you need to be back on shift, it takes its toll.

    Even then, I still used a good $5000 of my savings just to stay alive on pasta with hot dogs. Yes, maybe I helped my community a little, but it's now 2 years down the line and I am still suffering the financial consequences of that year.

    Sorry for the wordy response but I will say it again – do. not. do. it. I thought I was building my resume, and it did nearly nothing for me. The best thing that came out of my job was the friends I made. But you can find that anywhere. Don't give up your emotional and financial stability for that. This is too early in your career to screw yourself. Make money first, then take a job like that when you have massive savings as a buffer.

  5. KellyK*

    I like AAM's suggestions of finding out what options or compromises you have.

    The other thing to consider is what you'll do money-wise if you don't take the job. Do you have a "not real" job now that's keeping you from having to be on food stamps if you stay where you are? Or are you on unemployment, living on savings, or something like that?

    If the job is going to make your financial situation *worse* even with any adjustments they can make to the hours or the salary, I'd think long and hard before accepting it. If it's going to make it better, though (even if that improvement is from untenable to merely crappy), it may be worth it.

  6. DCthinker*

    I would strictly recommend my friends to NOT do it. I agree with Debbie, it is not worth it. "When one door closes, another opens." Wish you the best!

  7. Erika*

    On the legal side of things: If the pay is that low, and it's low because it's an entry-level-ish job, it is not likely exempt, and thus the company would be required to pay you overtime. Lots of companies try to get around this by finding reasons to claim jobs are exempt, but mostly they're wrong and skirting the labor laws. At least that's my understanding (I'm not a lawyer).

    You might want to ask explicitly if the job has exempt status, and I think you can say "I'm just wondering because I haven't heard of very many exempt jobs at that pay level. I'm wondering if I'd be eligible for overtime."

    Or tell me, other friends here, is this a no-no to bring up?

  8. De Minimis*

    Is this public accounting? I ask because that is a common complaint for entry level hires in public accounting, that after their salary is divided by the many hours they spend working that they end up making a very low wage per hour. Unfortunately, that's par for the course and always has been, the idea being that the main purpose of working for an accounting firm is learning and growth and less about salary [which is definitely true these days.]

    Anyway, if it is public accounting I would say you should probably persevere, at least for a year or two. There are so many unemployed people in accounting these days [myself being one] that generally any job opportunity is a good one.

    If it's some totally different field, I'd consider the advice others have given here. Public accounting is somewhat of a unique animal in that theoretically there are intangible benefits that newcomers have to consider before salary, that is, the opportunity to make a lot more money further down the road.

  9. Anonymous*

    I want to second what Debbie said about AmeriCorps jobs, even though I never had one. I wish somebody would write about how this program is being abused by non-profits to get away with paying poverty wages for positions that used to be full-time, and offered maybe low but decent, livable wages. Many of the jobs they advertise are obviously for people with experience and skills, yet they offer barely or less than minimum wage, and are often located in big expensive cities. It's outrageous. A person would be much better off going into the Peace Corps.

    As someone who has worked as a consultant in non-profit development and management and has worked for non-profits all my career, I am very disturbed by the AmeriCorps model. I believe in the long run it will hurt the healthy development of many of the organizations jumping on this bandwagon, in addition to the exploitation of people who are out of work, often very skilled, and are desperate to take a those jobs.

  10. Anonymous*

    Hey! This is my question…thanks everybody for your kind words!

    The job is campaign/non-profit/canvass-y…hence the low pay.

    I did get an offer and I'll be negotiating tomorrow, but since this is a national company that hires hundreds of "me" per year, I highly doubt there is room for negotiation. In fact, I'm pretty sure that my offer would be rescinded if I asked for negotiation because it isn't very fitting with the company policy. Apparently, I should want to eat Easy Mac for the rest of my life if I will save the planet in the meantime.

    I'm almost 100% sure I'm going to turn down the offer tomorrow…I guess I just wanted some affirmation that I wasn't doing something stupid. From someone who wasn't my father.

    I've only been looking for a job for a month, and I do have a summer camp position for six weeks, so I'm not actually freaking out yet. I think I'm just going to keep plugging away and work on my cover letters so I have more options.

    Thanks again! I appreciate the advice!

  11. Kim Stiens*

    I do political campaign work, and while often that is less than minimum wage when you calculate it out, its still totally worth it…

    However, when you throw on the word "Cavassy" I tell you to move on. Companies (political, non profit, whatever) are ALWAYS hiring for canvassers. If you got an offer from these guys, you can get an offer from Grassroots Campaigns or something like that 6 months from now if you want it. If its not a flat canvassing job, you might want to take it, because political work can be hard to come by, but canvassers are always in high demand and low supply (because canvassing sucks, haha). If you like to canvass, however, and can succeed, you'll always have a job in that field, now or later.

  12. Class factotum*

    I should want to eat Easy Mac for the rest of my life if I will save the planet in the meantime.

    Nope. Better to eat steak with your good salary and donate to a planet-saving charity. I was in the Peace Corps. I tried to save the world. It didn't want to be saved. :)

  13. Rebecca*

    You did the right thing, OP. No job is worth being unable to function as a human being.

  14. indefinitelee*

    depending on what state you are in this firm could be way on the wrong side of certain labor laws. check out your local dept of labor website to be sure.

  15. Anonymous*

    I'm a journalist, and I've been there! My first job out of school was a newsroom where the ad folks put bets on how long the new reporters would last- 4 months was the average. I did 6 (and won a friend 50 bucks in the process). Their strategy was to hire new grads for cheap, burn them out, then just hire more- it actually made more financial sense to them then keeping expensive workers around even if it meant quality could be a little iffy. Even my next job only had a take-home of 1, 200 bucks a month after tax, and I had to have a car for the job.

    What did I learn? Well, that 10 bucks of groceries suck in ways you can't even imagine. That the 40 hour a week is a 'suggestion', generally augmented in these 'public good' jobs with massive amounts of soul crushing overtime. Never, ever do the math if you want to stay in these jobs- my roommate at the time was a waiter and he consistently had more cash then I did, with no degree working shift work. It was just depressing.

    Were there benefits? Sure. I loved what I did, when most of my friends just tolerated their jobs. I was challenged creatively and intellectually, there was loads of room for growth, I liked the team I worked with, and I learned a lot. I also get to look smugly at all those who want to jump the cue and not pay their dues- I paid mine by taking a calculator to the grocery store for years and calling in sick because I couldn't afford the gas to get me to work. But the downside is a constant knawing panic over the state of your bank account, stress juggling bills that WILL impact your work performance eventually. The stress will get to you eventually. Not to mention my credit score is in tatters now (one must not use plastic to eat).

    HOWEVER: I'm not saying don't take the job. It might be one of those tough first years you have to do to get where you want to be. It might be worth it. But go into it with your eyes wide, wide open.

  16. Anonymous*

    If you are compensated at lease $455 a week on a salary basis, and the job is a management, executive, academic, or computer role, then the minimus wage laws to not apply. So if the hours worked were more then 62 hours, then they would be allowed to charge less than minimum wage.

    If this is not the case, then I agree 100%. Would you take a job knowing you are going to quit in two weeks? Would you lie to a potential employer about experience or education? Would you falsify time sheets? If the answer to any of these “no”, then you should not take this job. Just like you have ethical obligations to not rip off your employer, you have ethical obligations to your fellow workers to not compete unfairly – and this includes working for wages that are below the legal minimum.

    Also, you should consider reporting the employer to your local DOL Wage and Hour Division office. They are committing a crime.

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