3 Key Lessons I Learned About Underemployment

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Fresh out of graduate school, my first job was a social worker role, at a nonprofit where everyone had multiple roles and was generally underpaid and overworked. But, I LOVED it. I was working with a refugee population, and every day I felt like I'd made a small contribution toward bettering my community.

I tried to ignore the fact that my paychecks were often less than my previous job as a waitress.

Since I loved my clients, the mission, and my coworkers, I thought I was okay with the salary. I tried to ignore the fact that my paychecks were often less than my previous job as a waitress—I was dealing with a serious case of underemployment. However, several months in, I started to lose sleep. I chalked it up to stress and told myself it was just a part of the job.

Underemployment lesson 1: Take the initiative to find a better paying job

Time went on, and for nearly a year during this period of underemploymen,t I was suffering from severe insomnia, sleeping only 4 or fewer hours on weeknights. I tried melatonin, yoga, mindfulness, and finally a prescription-strength sleeping aid.

So when a friend-of-a-friend told me about a research-based social work position opening up at a larger institution known for great benefits and time off, I couldn't apply fast enough. Guess what?! I got that cushy job at that fancy institution. And it paid bank for what a social worker in my area typically makes: $50K.

I was through the roof and excited to start a new position. My sleep began to regulate, and my stress level was much lower than it had been at my previous job.

Underemployment lesson 2: Take action to change the status quo and get paid what you deserve

From a fulfillment standpoint, I continued to feel great about the work I was doing. I was  spreading knowledge and problem-solving toward better mental health access in the state. A couple of weeks into my new position, I started hearing things at my meet-and-greets with various people and departments about my salary. Since I worked at a public institution, everyone's wages were public and searchable. In fact, a few people asked me what my salary was, and I answered honestly.

The petition

One day, a colleague stopped me after a meeting and said, "Hey, I just wanted you to know that I didn’t sign the thing that’s going around. Sorry, that's happening." I played it off like I knew what she was talking about but had no clue what she meant. Slowly, I was able to piece together what happened.

My starting salary was higher than a lot of the other social workers. So there was a petition going around the entire institution (we are talking tens of thousands of employees) with my full name, salary, and a paragraph about why I was getting paid too much! I asked my supervisor about it, and when my supervisor confirmed the existence of the petition, my heart sank into my stomach.

Jealous co-workers

According to the petition, I didn't have enough experience. Other people didn't get paid that much, my licensure was new, etc. I kept telling myself I was “not worth $50k.” My head spun on my drive home. Was I earning too much? Should I have questioned my starting salary? Or worse, did people think I was greedy?

After I went back and cried a mix of tears of anger and embarrassment, I tried to brush it off. I told myself I was lucky to be in the position making the salary I made. If this is what I had to deal with, it didn't matter. I went back to work like nothing had happened and stayed at that institution for years.

What do I wish I'd done? I wish I'd had the capacity and confidence to set up a meeting with whoever started that petition. I should have scheduled a meeting with the head of the department.

The approach was wrong. They listed the reasons why I shouldn't make the money I was making. But as social workers, they should have used my salary as a way to highlight the economic injustices that social workers are faced with.

If you identify as female or work in a helping profession, I urge you to talk about how much money you make. Ensure equal compensation for the work you do in your field. Set up an annual meeting to discuss pay raises.

The takeaway lesson on underemployment

They should have advocated for better pay for themselves and the workers in their field. They should have used my salary to say, "Hey, this is a livable wage. If she can get that as a starting salary, there is no reason that we can't demand better wages." Not just living wages, but wages that compensate them for the type of emotionally draining work expected of them.

Women make up 83% of the workforce in social work. Not to mention, most of these jobs require Master's Degrees; 80% of people in the field of social work have earned a Master's degree.

So in addition to earning low salaries, many of us are also alongside our fellow Americans who are deep in student debt. By default, we are systematically saying it's okay for us to earn less for our hard work. We need to be able to do what we do best for others, for ourselves; advocate and demand change.

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If you identify as female or work in a helping profession, I urge you to talk about how much money you make. Ensure equal compensation for the work you do in your field. Set up an annual meeting to discuss pay raises. There are plenty of fantastic articles and videos that help women find the language they need to get paid what they deserve. You are worth it, and I wish I'd done it.

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