Thoughts on the Salary-Based Economy | Vol. 2 / No. 48.3

What does it cost you to miss an hour of work? | Photo: Damian Gadal, CC BY 2.0
What does it cost you to miss an hour of work? | Photo: Damian Gadal, CC BY 2.0

In today’s post, I’m thinking out loud about what it costs to leave work, even for an hour. Read on.


I’ve never been paid a salary. I’ve had probably a dozen jobs in my life — everything from installing koi ponds to servicing fire extinguishers to teaching university courses — but not one has been salaried. The closest I’ve ever come is the teaching (“adjuncting,” as it were), but doing so as a graduate student makes it a part of your stipendiary allowance, and it’s only sort-of the same thing. It’s close, though.

But that funding ended last year (though the process of getting this degree didn’t) and now I’m working a full-time hourly position once again. Thanks the stars it’s not minimum wage, but even so, it’s pointed something out to me that was never so apparent before: this economy is designed around people who pull a salary, and it’s more expensive than you’d think to not.

Take going to the dentist. My dentist, I have discovered, is only open one evening a week. They are not open on weekends. They work, by and large, the same hours I work.

Someone on a salary could, pretty reliably, take an hour or two out of the day to go get their teeth checked. But if someone on an hourly wage does that, those are hours they aren’t making that hourly wage. It’s like the old chestnut about Bill Gates not stopping to pick up a quarter because his time is worth like, a hundred dollars a minute and it’s just not worth the wasted time to stoop down and pick it up.

Except Bill Gates would still pick up the quarter (probably) because he doesn’t actually lose that money. He does both at once, something hourly workers can’t do.

What I’m talking about is called “opportunity cost,” and it’s a pretty basic concept in economics. The idea is that everything you do — if it takes up money, time, or effort — costs you, in terms of what that money, time, and effort could be used for instead. If you buy an ice cream, you can’t use that money to buy something else. If you spend the afternoon fishing, you can’t also spend the afternoon working (unless fishing is your work, in which case, thanks fishermen and -women of the world!).

And if I spend three hours getting to the dentist’s office on transit, having a cleaning done, and getting back to work, that’s three hours’ worth of pay I’m not getting (assuming I can even get the time off to go in the first place). Even if the visit were free (*cough* copays and deductibles are criminal extortion *cough*) it wouldn’t be really free because there would be the opportunity cost of not earning money when I would otherwise be doing so.

And the worst part of this is? My situation is actually pretty good.

I make above minimum wage. If I were making minimum wage here, sure, my opportunity cost would be lower ($9/hour in Massachusetts), but every dollar I gave up would be more important to me. That’s part of the reason behind progressive income taxation — a dollar is worth a lot more to you when you only have twelve hundred of them each month to pay a nine hundred in rent, and three hundred on food, heat, electricity, internet, transit just to get to work — I mean literally everything else. 

That’s how the system is stacked against hourly workers. And it gets worse: hourly workers lack benefits a lot more often than salaried workers as well, meaning no retirement savings, no dental insurance, and maybe even no subsidized health plan if you’re in the wrong state. I’ve been unable to find statistics on salaried workers vs. hourly ones in the US (if you do, drop me a line), but I strongly suspect that the number of hourly workers has gone up with the number of part-time and temporary workers, putting a lot more people in the same precarious position.

And it hurts the economy, too.

Ever try to send a letter? Our post office isn’t open outside “business hours,” which I just happen to work. If I want to send a letter it’ll be the cost of the stamp plus the cost of an hour’s work — and that’s too much to send a letter. I’ll do it some other way, thanks. Want to go to the bank? Unless they’re open late (some finally are) you might be out of luck unless you want to pay for the privilege.

Really, what it means is that if you want to sell something to a full-time hourly worker, you’ll need to be prepared to open evenings and weekends, because that’s the only time you’re likely see us. We just can’t afford the additional cost of showing up.


Richard Ford Burley is a doctoral candidate in English at Boston College, where he’s writing about remix culture and the processes that generate texts in the Middle Ages and on the internet. In his spare time he writes about science, skepticism, and feminism (and wage worker problems) here at This Week In Tomorrow.