Living the dream, on overtime
High Country News
Last summer, Jojo Buss worked as a guide in some of the country’s most spectacular places, taking teenagers paddling, hiking and camping. Highlights included kayaking on Yellowstone Lake and whitewater rafting in Teton National Forest. “The way they all bonded, like, blew my mind,” Buss says.
The 22-year-old earned only about $1,800 that summer, despite very long hours under rough conditions. But the experience complemented her college major — youth development and camp management — so, this summer, she signed on with the same outfitter, Wilderness Adventures, guiding tours in Alaska’s Prince William Sound. “This is exactly what I want to be doing,” she says. “It’s a selfless job. We’re doing it for the kids. Every kid should have the right and ability to get out in the outdoors and have somebody open their world up.”
Today, when many workers are demanding a higher minimum wage, this seems counterintuitive. Of course, some guides want higher pay and have even filed class-action lawsuits. But Buss’ willingness to re-up despite the low wages helps explain why companies have gotten away with paying people so little for what can be extremely demanding jobs.
Under a new federal rule, following an executive order by the Obama administration, companies with permits to operate on federal land will have to pay employees at least $10.10 an hour, plus overtime. (The changes will phase in gradually, as companies get new permits.) The industry sees the increased wage as an existential threat, given the hours that outdoor work requires, and some congressional Republicans, headed by Rep. Chris Stewart of Utah, are seeking an exemption for federal contractors.
Low wages are so accepted in the industry that even college-educated adults like Buss can’t imagine being paid as much as Obama’s rule would require. Her workweek starts when she picks up campers at the airport and ends when she drops them off. “We’d be getting paid a ridiculous amount of money,” she says. “More than I would feel comfortable accepting.”
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