Should my husband take a job with a very low salary?
February 9, 2012 3:31 PM   Subscribe

Should you take a job that doesn't pay enough to live on, or continue on unemployment -- which is even less?

My husband's contract ended just before Thanksgiving, and he's been looking for work ever since. While he's getting unemployment, it isn't enough money to cover our expenses, and we're drawing about $2K a month from his IRA every month to cover the gap. (I'm a SAHM, and in this economy, I can't earn enough to cover child care for our two children.) He has over a decade of experience, and he's been interviewing a lot, but it is a tough market out there -- he's lost out on 3 jobs in "very difficult decisions between two highly qualified candidates."

Well, he was just offered a (contract) job. . . at half his previous hourly rate. Half. It would absolutely not cover our expenses, and we live fairly frugally; we'd still have to draw about a thousand dollars a month out of the IRA. On the other hand, that's less than we're drawing now. On the OTHER other hand, couldn't that screw him in terms of future earnings if people ask for a salary history?

He replied to the contract agency, saying he is very interested but really needs a higher rate. He's also a little grumpy because he told them his rate, and said he could maybe go a little lower for the right job, but half is not a little lower! What should he do? Is the bird in the hand really worth two in the bush, or should he regretfully turn them down and keep interviewing?
posted by KathrynT to Work & Money (32 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
A job is better than unemployment, for the simple reason that having a job is the best way to get a job. No, I'm not being facetious! If employers see the resume of someone who already has a job, that person immediately looks like a better bet than the person on unemployment. Someone ELSE thought this person was worth hiring, that's a step.

My wife was unemployed for six months, couldn't even get a grocery store clerk job. Got an admin job at a non-profit, and six months later three more (and better) jobs fell out of the sky onto her lap.
posted by arcticwoman at 3:40 PM on February 9, 2012 [22 favorites]

In practical terms: more money than you have been getting is a gain.

Also: this is a contract job. It has a finite end date. He will still get the opportunity for better-paying jobs, and his taking the work will also get him in good with his contract agency for being a team player. (At least - it served me well when I was temping and times were tight.)
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 3:40 PM on February 9, 2012 [4 favorites]

I'd take it, less draw on the IRA is where it makes sense for me. The salary history can be explained, the savings are harder to get back.
posted by iamabot at 3:40 PM on February 9, 2012 [9 favorites]

Do people actually look at salary histories? Also is there a middle ground here in caling them back and negotiating a bit more on the rate?
posted by edbles at 3:43 PM on February 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

I would only take it if he can keep interviewing in the meanwhile (assuming this low-paying job is a fluke in his market), or if he finds the project interesting and career building enough to make the paycut worthwhile. If he came down to the final two on 3 separate occasions in 2.5 months, he's an attractive candidate. I wouldn't gamble forever, especially given your budget deficit, but I might hold out a little longer.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 3:44 PM on February 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

I would not hold out. It is entirely true that employers tend to be biased toward people who are working and contract/temp jobs often lead to other offers.
posted by Lesser Shrew at 3:46 PM on February 9, 2012 [2 favorites]

A job is better than unemployment, for the simple reason that having a job is the best way to get a job.

Seconding this. It legitimizes you to whatever degree. All those news reports about this effect are, for once, actually correct.

The trick is to be sure that the low paying job does not restrict your ability to search and apply for better jobs. Not meaning the actual low paying employer will tell you that it job hunting is not allowed, but the time spent at that position takes you out of the game to an extent and one can miss out on things. Sometimes great opportunities come up unexpectedly and have to be acted on right away.

As a freelancer I go through this all the time and am constantly trying to balance a decent money flow while remaining available for better situations. It is kind of a crapshoot, but you can get used to it and for your husband, it could work out very well.
posted by lampshade at 3:50 PM on February 9, 2012

I would not take the job at half pay. I would push back hard on the "I told you my rate" thing to the agency; taking the job at the current rate would I think not so much curry favor with the agency as it would mark him as a sucker or desperate, and they'll keep low balling him on future gigs.

This doesn't sound like a good opportunity to me.
posted by ook at 3:52 PM on February 9, 2012 [3 favorites]

Best answer: or should he regretfully turn them down and keep interviewing?

He should take the job and keep looking. The longer he is out of work, the more likely an interviewer will think "he's just going to take this job and keep looking" which is why hiring managers avoid hiring unemployed people (it's an absolutely miserable catch-22). So he should be employed if at all possible.

There will be something he gains from it. If not enough money, maybe a great project, or experience with a new software, or an extended professional network. Take the job and get what you can out of it.

And his salary history is not future employers' business. I've never given an actual salary history to a prospective employer. I've said "I'm looking in the $x to $y range" and I've said "I'm currently earning in the mid-$x's" and nobody's ever pressed for more.
posted by headnsouth at 3:54 PM on February 9, 2012 [6 favorites]

He should take the job as long as he can still find time to interview and apply for other jobs. Not only for all the reasons mentioned above, what with it being easier to get a job if you have one, it helps with networking and it stops you eating away your savings so fast.

Taking the job would be good because it is very easy when not working or getting a lot of offers to get down and to get out of the habit of working. The better your husband feels about himself the more likely he is to keep looking for better paying jobs and to keep putting himself out with confidence. He will also meet people who just might be able to help him get that job too, he should network like a mad man while he's there.
posted by wwax at 3:55 PM on February 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

I took a couple of contract gigs just while I was unemployed for resume fodder and no one ever asked how much they paid, nor did I offer to tell them. When people asked about my salary history I quoted my last permanent job. (The contract gigs were $10 an hour - not something I'd brag about, and not something I'd accept as a permanent position unless I really, really felt that the alternative was homelessness.)
posted by restless_nomad at 3:56 PM on February 9, 2012

Yes. More money is more money.

Also, not taking the unemployment insurance for that time will mean that he (should) be eligible to re-open the claim once the contract ends.

He should also see if he can (or has to) pay unemployment insurance on his contract earnings. Doing so may extend (or retain) his benefits. But you'd have to ask.
posted by gjc at 3:57 PM on February 9, 2012 [4 favorites]

As I contractor...might I gently suggest some tips for next time:

...said he could maybe go a little lower for the right job...

In the future, never say this. Ever. Do not tip your hand to a prospective employer. You should always go into rate negotiations with the mindset that you are a professional and a professional commands a professional rate. Leave it up to them to tell you if they can't afford you, otherwise you appear to be selling yourself short. If you tell them "you can go lower" then you will go lower. Period.

...couldn't that screw him in terms of future earnings if people ask for a salary history?

If he is generally a contractor then he should not be revealing his salary history to any prospective employer. Salary history is nobodies business. The idea is: regardless of my past, this is my rate now, take it or lets negotiate. Your salary history as a contractor is your leverage...don't give that away.

I personally would probably not take the job at half my rate, as it would cut into time spent networking and holding out for a properly paying job. My experience has been that once you take a step down in rate it is hard to step back up. Then again, I currently do not have kids and much you have a different set of priorities.
posted by jnnla at 4:22 PM on February 9, 2012 [5 favorites]

(as the sole other naysayer, I should note that I too am a contractor rather than unemployed; could be we just get itchy at the mention of lower hourly rates.)
posted by ook at 4:31 PM on February 9, 2012

Response by poster: Does it change the calculus in one direction or another if I tell y'all that his last permanent job was at this same company, a Very Large Software Company in this area, and that he was let go from that job for underperformance (after a stellar decade-plus career) after a management change?
posted by KathrynT at 4:32 PM on February 9, 2012

Some is less than none. Personally I'd view the value of being employed (and making contacts and keeping current and overcoming the obnoxious unemployment stigma that some places give weight to) as not-zero.

As far as what he should accept, he should not accept less than they're going to have to pay someone else. If someone else will take this job at this rate then that's an argument that what they are offering is an appropriate salary.

It sucks, but what you need to live every month has no bearing on what his salary should be, at least as far as a market-driven system defines 'should.' Which we can be pissed about, but you can't overcome the reality that if you are the sole person asking to be paid more than everyone else then you are not going to get picked.

Your last statement makes me think there's some value in going back there at a rate below what you want (assuming, again, it's not inappropriately low). If he really did just draw the short straw in the reorg game then refreshing his contacts has some real value.

On the other hand, depending on their culture, going back in at a low rate could forever stick him in a bad place. He knows their culture, I do not.
posted by phearlez at 4:37 PM on February 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

Will he be working in the same functional area, and/or for the people who decided to let him go? If so, this smells bad to me.

Otherwise, working is better than not, mostly (in my opinion) because the non-desperate interview better, can afford nice paper for their resume and cover letter, have fresh contacts, etc. We don't score people on having a job or not, where I am, but we consistently end up hiring the highest scorers, all of whom are already working. I mean, we literally don't have a way of accounting for it: it's just the answers to interview questions, a test, and maybe what we heard from background checks, if the job is important enough. Yet all of our street maintenance technicians and secretaries and engineers and all, almost without exception, end out being people who already have work.

It's kind of annoying for us because it always adds a lengthy delay to an already frustratingly long process (admittedly, I'm speaking here from the HR/"we had to write three letters explaining how desperately urgent filling this job was before they would give us the money, and it's been six months since we started the process, and they're going to laugh when we say that the next time" standpoint.)
posted by SMPA at 4:39 PM on February 9, 2012

Oh, also: since he's a contractor, see if they'll pay him a higher hourly rate but for fewer hours on site. This frees up the time to continue getting a better job, makes him look really good (if he's able to be very productive,) and makes the "I'm not getting as much money" thing taste significantly less unpleasant.
posted by SMPA at 4:41 PM on February 9, 2012 [2 favorites]

The update changes things - but Today's economy is nothing to fool around with. I'd still take it.
posted by Lesser Shrew at 4:47 PM on February 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Will he be working in the same functional area, and/or for the people who decided to let him go?

No. Completely different org. In fact, they've hired him to create the team, he's the first worker of this kind on the team. It's a much more senior, high-level job than the one he left two years ago, but it's contract, not FTE. AND it's going to be involved enough that while he theoretically could look for other work, it will be a lot harder than it would be with a more junior job. OTOH, they mentioned an FTE conversion possibility, but maybe they say that to all the girls, you know?
posted by KathrynT at 4:52 PM on February 9, 2012

Best answer: It's a much more senior, high-level job than the one he left two years ago…

he should take the job. as others have said above, a job is a job, especially if it means taking less out of your IRA.

in addition, being the person who created this team will put him in a great position if he does well. contractors are more likely to get hired if for no other reason than that they have already learned the ins and outs of their position and the company—and companies would rather not have to hire and train a new person from scratch. it puts your husband in a good position should the role go full time.

i was a freelancer for a very long time and, at the start of the recession, decided i wanted a full-time job (yeah, not the best timing). the company i wanted to work for has a large percentage of contractors who, and a large percentage of them do end up transitioning to full-time employment for the reason i stated above. i've been contracting for almost a year now and, according to my boss, have really impressed him. and although my department does not have the headcount to hire me, the recruiter that brought me in as well as my boss and my art director have all been going to bat for me to get hired in another department.

as for salary, that's something your husband can negotiate if he gets an offer—from that company or another. he just needs to make a case for why the position and it's duties and responsibilities justifies whatever salary he is asking for.
posted by violetk at 5:22 PM on February 9, 2012

I don't know how it works in your state, but in Arizona, if you are on unemployment you aren't allowed to turn down an offer of work.
posted by Weeping_angel at 6:31 PM on February 9, 2012

Response by poster: Weeping_angel, in Washington, you don't have to take a job that's significantly below market wage. This job was about 40% below market.

After everyone's invaluable advice and perspective, I think he's going to take the job. The opportunity to sanitize his reputation at the VLSC, the reality that it's more money than unemployment AND pauses the unemployment clock, the possibility of an FTE conversion, and the reality that it's easier to get a job if you have a job put an acceptable sugar coating on this bitter pill. He was able to negotiate them up to the same wage but with benefits, which is something. He will of course continue to pursue other employment aggressively.

Thank you so much, Metafilter. Here's hoping this turns into something good.
posted by KathrynT at 7:23 PM on February 9, 2012 [2 favorites]

posted by batmonkey at 7:25 PM on February 9, 2012

Good luck! I really think whatever you can do to reduce the draw on that IRA is the right move both short and long term.
posted by iamabot at 11:06 PM on February 9, 2012

Every place I've applied to in the last eight years has demanded a salary history. Some places refuse to talk to me any further if I won't provide it. Others explain that they need it in order to gauge "how good you are" and "how much responsibility you had". One place said they needed to know so that they could work out "how much you need to live on, and then we'll add commuting costs to that".

If the salary is high, they say that's too high for them and in this economy I need to be flexible. If the salary is low, they refuse to pay any more than that.

The only way to deal with it is to be prepared for an argument.
posted by tel3path at 1:52 AM on February 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

Or, of course, to refuse to disclose. They usually infer from that that your salary was low, though.
posted by tel3path at 1:53 AM on February 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

Oh, careless me, I missed this sentence: He was able to negotiate them up to the same wage but with benefits, which is something. The same wage as before? Congrats!
posted by tel3path at 4:48 AM on February 10, 2012

I know for my wife, if she refused a job, she would loose her unemployement benefits. I would check the conditions of unemployment to see if this would apply.
posted by dyno04 at 6:34 AM on February 10, 2012

tel3path: "The same wage as before? "

My last contract gig I had the option of taking a full rate, or a reduced rate + benefits. I think this means the full rate they offered (albeit the one lower than the previous earnings), but including benefits.
posted by I am the Walrus at 7:01 AM on February 10, 2012

Response by poster: Oh, careless me, I missed this sentence: He was able to negotiate them up to the same wage but with benefits, which is something. The same wage as before? Congrats!

The same wage they previously offered. $20/hr, with benefits.
posted by KathrynT at 8:26 AM on February 10, 2012

Response by poster: Just to update: he took the job and was almost immediately contacted by one of the companies he had interviewed at for an FTE position, offering to open a contract gig for him instead. It's been about three months in the running, but all the i's have been dotted and t's have been crossed, and he starts the new job -- at his old bill rate, twice what he's currently making -- as soon as his notice period for this job expires. Thank you, everyone!
posted by KathrynT at 8:24 AM on June 8, 2012

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