Pay day

My first real job paid a whopping $5 per day. In excahnge for eight to 10 hours of sweat off my 13-year-old back, a relatively slender Lincoln fell in the pay bucket each night.

“Wow, you’re really getting shafted,” a high school friend boasted. “I pull down $5 an hour. I can’t begin to wrap my mind around the mathematics of your wage.”

I’d already done the calculation.

Including the long days and the occasional Saturday or Sunday when the boss needed a fill-in, I was clocking approximately 42 cents an hour, give or take a half-penny. For a reference point, this was 1985 not 1955.

But, I could easily look beyond my 42 cents an hour. Mr. Five Bucks/Hour was going home each night to meatloaf at mom’s place and plugging his electric blanket into his parents’ outlet. My $5 per day was gravy on top of room and board. The real pay-off was a roof over my head, three massive meals and the satisfaction of making my own way.

My first job in Durango clocked in at a whopping $7.50 an hour. A few slender Franklins fell in the pay bucket each week in exchange for 40 hours of sweat off my 28-year-old back.

“Wow, you’re really getting shafted,” boasted a friend in the ski town I’d just left. “I’m making $50,000 a year now. I can’t begin to wrap my mind around living on much less than that.”

Of that $7.50 an hour, Uncle Sam took a big bite. Nearly half of the paycheck went into covering my chunk of our $800 rent. Telephone bills, car payments and the almighty City Market swallowed what little was left. When the month had come and gone, I’d be lucky to be holding $150 in fun tickets. Five dollars a day suddenly wasn’t looking bad at all.

From the beginning, my employer tried to soften the blow. “Well, one benefit is that I’m picking up worker’s comp,” he said through a vacant smile. “If you’re injured on the job, you’ll be all taken care of.”

My response was quick: “Aren’t you required to provide worker’s comp by law?”

He shrugged, cupped his hand to his ear and stuttered, “Uh … I … I think I hear the phone. Back in a sec.”

And yet somehow, my wife Rachael and I survived our La Plata County initiation, graduating into the $10 to $15 an hour bracket not too long after. And thanks to a few meals out and the return of anniversary presents, the marriage endured. Call us crazy, but we decided to bring a child into the financial anomaly known as the Four Corners. We did this knowing full well that should Skyler survive the rigors of rural living, stave off hunger, disease and live to adulthood, she too would have an opportunity to bring home a few hundred bucks a week.

Throughout my tenure in Durango, wages have always hung at an unnaturally low rate, and “the price of paradise” has dominated local bar stool chat. At the same time, “For Rent” signs have littered storefronts in our tourist sector, and talk of Durango’s housing crisis fills any gaps on the bar stool. “Median home price up!,” “Housing crunch!” scream the headlines. On the flip side of the publication, most “Help Wanted” ads offer employees between $7 and $9 an hour. Sorry to shatter the illusion – people making these wages can’t afford any home at any price.

And yet, tens of millions of dollars ride into town every summer on narrow gauge rails. Real estate is on the verge of surpassing tourism as the biggest generator of local dollars. Gas companies continue to pull billions from beneath the La Plata County crust. Flock after flock of lone eagle is migrating into the Durango area. And I still can’t wrap my mind around the Durango dollar dilemma.

Where does the money go? Are any Durango workers making a genuine living wage? How do you grow a healthy community on $7.50/hour? Your answers to these questions are as good as mine.

In the meantime, I keep trying to solve the dilemma the only way I know how. Every dollar that goes into a locally owned business is guaranteed to spend at least some time in Durango. It’ll do a little to keep our favorite shops and restaurants in business; ensure that something other than rubber tomahawks are available on Main Avenue; and help pay a neighbor’s wage or even push them closer to a raise.

This time of year, a dollar bill can do everyone some good as it works its way around town. And chances are that buck will wind up right back where it all started – inside your pocket.

– Will Sands



In this week's issue...

January 25, 2024
Bagging it

State plastic bag ban is in full effect, but enforcement varies

January 26, 2024
Paper chase

The Sneer is back – and no we’re not talking about Billy Idol’s comeback tour.

January 11, 2024
High and dry

New state climate report projects continued warming, declining streamflows