Yeah, it really is as bad as you think. Age, looks, race, sex, we got it all. But wait! There’s more!
The old adage is, working in the Keys is a tropical depression. Low wages, long hours, few benefits, and even fewer choices. The Keys ain’t a hotbed of income opportunities if you chose to work for somebody other than yourself. The vast majority of jobs here are service type, cleaning, retail, waitstaff, things of that nature. Then there are the touristy jobs, mating on a dive boat, riding a pedicab, guide at a museum, or in my case, kayak guide. They sound like fun and seem like cool jobs but most involve hard, physical labor. There are some construction jobs, and the occasional government position opens up. But none pay anything worth a shit, few have any benefits other than living in the Keys, and most are outside in the hot sun or on the water. The average wage here in Monroe County is one of the lowest in Florida. $10 an hour being an average, with the occasional bump up to $12 or $13. Combine that with the high cost of living and it’s not easy. But let’s not look at the types of jobs and rather concentrate on actually getting one of them.
The Keys have a very high turnover of population. People come down to live the island life without reading my incredibly-well-written-highly-detailed-humorous-yet-realistic book on moving to the Keys, and wind up leaving within a year, a lot more broke, and very bitter for the experience. People also come here not so much to work, but to party and enjoy living in the Keys. So earning an income becomes secondary to having a good time. They go out drinking and partying, do all those expensive touristy things, and quite frequently, forget to come to work the next day. No big deal, they think, there are other jobs out there that pay just as poorly. Employers know all this, through experience. They assume that no matter how good your resume looks, no matter what you tell them, you will not be here a year from now. No sense in throwing perfectly good wages your way. And forget about offering benefits. You won’t be around long enough to qualify. So, employers can be as choosy as they choose to be. Advertise for a job opening, pick the prettiest, or the one you might most likely score a piece of ass with before they leave, no matter their qualifications, and then use and abuse them until they leave.
And speaking of qualifications, from what I have experienced both in applying for a position, and dealing with those who already have a position, education and experience don’t mean shit in the islands. Your college degree is meaningless for handling a retail point of sale or standing at kiosk all day selling tickets to sunset cruises. The one single qualification that will get you through the door, other than a boob job (male or female in this town), is the ability to speak Spanish or any other language besides English. In fact, English here is more of a second language now. Beyond that, unless you have somebody on the inside who can vouch that you will actually show up and do your job, you will most likely be passed over.
Looks count for everything when you are running a company that works directly with the tourists. Nobody wants to look at the fat old guy with the graying hair. Those who are young, pretty, and know it, can have their pick of the litter when it comes to finding an income. Job experience means nothing if you can wiggle your ass just right for the employer and the customer. (My ass wiggling days are long gone what with my bad back and all.) Someone with a nice rack and a pretty smile will get hired immediately over some grizzled old veteran. I know of at least two places I applied for where the person they hired was based on looks alone. Despite having the qualifications to actually do the job, the young manager saw a possible sexual conquest over a potential hire with experience. It’s the way things are and in my case, there is not much I can do about it. Can’t turn back the clock, not that it would help anyways. Never was accused of being good looking.
I don’t clean up very well which is why I blend in so well here in the Keys. The last time I wore a suit and tie was in 1984 and it will never happen again. And besides, the monkey suit has no place in the Keys. Fishing shirts and shorts are the uniform dujour around here and I have been known to tuck in my shirt tail when applying for a job, but considering that most places I applied for had employees with tattoos/piercings/odd colored hair and other oddities I feel over dressed sometimes. Going around to take job interviews during the summer in the heat tends to have an effect on your appearance. More than a few times I took the bus rather than bike so as to not be so sweaty when I got there, not that it helped very much. There seems to be a tendency to lump us old geezers in with the local burnouts and bums. Despite what I tell them, no drinking, no drugs, clean record, it has no effect. I figgered the Captain license with the Security card would help my credibility. It hasn’t. To the employer, I’m just an average bum. Not worthy of the time it takes to say no. Let me give you a recent example:
About two weeks ago the marina here where I live advertised for some part time help at the bait store. Easy work. Run the counter, answer phones, simple stuff. I could probably walk in and with little more than a couple of hours be doing the job without any trouble. Hours were right. (By the way, part time means anything less than 40 hours a week. It’s a trick famously used by wallymart to get around all those pesky laws that require employers to pay benefits. Keep the worker bees under 40 hours and all you have to do is pay their wages and take out for some taxes. Very common trick these days.) Anyways, I went over to see about the opening. The manager, who knows me because I live there, saw me walk in and put on her best customer service smile with the classic but flawed opening line, “May I help you?”. (For you people beginning in retail, this is the wrong way to greet a customer.) As soon as I walked up to her and mentioned I was interested in the position, her look, her demeanor, and her smile instantly changed. The very moment that I, a mere mortal, dared to express interest in her job, I went from resident/customer/source of money to piece of shit/slave/worker bee. I’m not kidding here. You could physically feel the change in this woman’s attitude the moment I expressed an interest in the position. The smile was gone, replaced by a frown and look that said, “If by some bizarre chance I did hire your worthless ass, you would regret every day you come here.”. The frown turned to a scowl as she immediately began ringing off a litany of excuses why I couldn’t apply…we have enough applications already, we don’t hire residents, (a fact I know to be untrue), and as she was reaching for more I casually mentioned I had 30 years of retail experience behind me and could do this job easily. But I knew it was too late. She did finally decide to allow me the privilege of leaving an application if I so chose, but I knew it would be just a waste of paper. And judging from her attitude, I suspect she was one of those who demands that all the dollar bills be right side up in the cash drawer. I walked out knowing that despite the need for some income, I would have been miserable working there. I stopped by yesterday to get something to drink and she was working the counter. There was no smile this time. Barely a thank you. The damage is done. I’m just another piece of shit to her. How dare I even try to exist in the same world as her. I made sure the bill I gave her was properly crumpled up, and upside down. Sometimes, not getting the job is just as good as getting it.
There is one other issue with finding an income through somebody other than yourself and it’s something that I will admit, is a personal fault of mine in getting hired. Many companies here in the Keys are now corporate entities. That means they have chains of stores all over the country. Companies like West Marine, Margaritaville, the UPS store. All now run by corporations. And with them comes the corporate mentality. Endless rules, regulations, paperwork, and bureaucratic nonsense. Procedures on how to do everything and anything the company way, because the company way is the only way. Need an example?
Remember, for those up there in years, the local pizza shop. Most likely started up and owned by a local. The pizza chef would make all the pies from scratch, twirling the dough, maybe adding in a few extra pepperoni if you were a regular. Go walk into a chain pizza shop nowadays and look on the wall. There will be the exact and precise instructions on how to construct a pizza. Ingredients are measured out to within micrograms so as to minimize the use of the products and maximize the profit margins. The worker bees can barely twirl their fingers, let alone make a pizza with any flair. And woe be to anyone who deviates from the rigid instructions. I want that on my resume: Fired for giving out extra sprinkles.
Anyways, having spent years in the corporate environment, with the sport diving industry, with Harley-Davidson, I’m not too sure I can do it anymore. Corporations have become mini governments with their endless rules and regulations. And we all know how much I love government. A few times when I have applied at such a place I look at the application and just shake my head. Does anyone really care which elementary school I went too? One I remember in particular had a 100 question survey attached to the application. Questions that try to peek into your personality to see if you fit the worker bee mold. I’ve also had a few interviews where the manager asked questions from a prepared script. Never once deviating from the process. Anytime I see those sorts of things I know I am doomed. The job ain’t happening.
Now I will freely admit here without any denial that maybe, just maybe, a little bit of that anti corporate attitude might seep out during the interview or in the application…maybe, just a little. Just kidding…halfway through the interview I have pretty much given up any hope of the job and the real me comes out. And trust me, the real me is not corporate/worker bee/cannon fodder. But that’s okay. I remember all the stress. Coming home after arguing with managers, listening to their corporate droning, and trying really hard to follow the company line. Trying desperately to convince myself that the money is worth the pain. I just can’t do it anymore. Once I got out of the corporate world and went off on my own, despite the lack of affordable income, I regained some things. My pride, my self esteem, my will to live. Well worth the trade off.
So here I sit. Trying to make it on my own. Building apps, writing books, and occasionally taking out paddlers on kayak trips. The last is pretty easy stuff. No set hours, easy paddling conditions, and with my charming wit and devastingly good looks I manage to bring in some hefty tips now and then. None of it is paying the bills yet, but it all shows signs of growing. I may yet have to regress and go back to being a worker bee for a while until things level out. That’s assuming I can put on the happy worker bee facade again. It’s tougher as I get older and remain self unemployed. My bullshit tolerance level is maxed out. I have a problem with trying to prove a work history. Most of my former employers are either dead or retired. The businesses I worked at are gone or bought out by other corporations with no record of my existence.
Best I can do is try to gut it out and make it on my own. Which I highly recommend if you are looking for a new direction in life. Nothing adds to a feeling of self importance and satisfaction than being able to do your own thing, on your own time, in your own way, and without any outside help. Remember that life is not defined by an eight hour shift with a half hour for lunch and two fifteen minute breaks. Your life should never be defined by an hourly wage. Corporations, despite what they may think, do not own you. As far as corporations are concerned, you are not a living being, you are a tool to be used to gain profit. No different than a stapler or a cash drawer. As long as you produce more income for them than what they pay out to you, you will be allowed to continue to serve. It’s just not worth it.
If you are coming to the Keys, keep in mind that there are no career jobs with companies here. Forget about retirement plans or even health insurance. It’s all low pay, crap jobs that may get you by, if you live frugally enough. And there is fierce competition for these jobs. Expect to face much discrimination especially if you are not young and pretty. And if you are, be prepared to debase yourself even more to get the job.
Or, you can put a plan together to do something on your own. Use your own skills and experiences along with that lost American art of entrepreneurship and make your own way in life. Do what you can to be as self sufficient as possible. You may worker harder. You may work longer. You may make less. But you will be happier in the long run. And free to pursue life as you have dreamed.