How do under the table jobs work?
April 4, 2007 6:49 AM   Subscribe

What are common "under the table" jobs and how do employers and potential employees find each other?

I know that childcare, construction and housekeeping are often paid "under the table". But what are other occupations/jobs that are commonly paid under the table?

How do employers that pay "under the table" find potential workers? How do employees find these jobs?
posted by k8t to Work & Money (34 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
For employees, it's fairly easy. Asking to work under the table isn't illegal or anything. You walk into a place with a help wanted sign, you ask if the job's on the books, and if they say yes you walk out.

Oh, and as for occupations: almost any restaurant job.
posted by nebulawindphone at 7:05 AM on April 4, 2007

Most illegal occupations are paid under the table (prostitution, dealing, etc). In terms of how people find one another, most day labor gigs are arranged by showing up at a certain spot where prospective day laborers gather. People with jobs roll up and pick out the folks they need for the day. It is a remarkably efficient way to do things. Housekeeping, childcare and illegal activities tend to be referral-based.
posted by Lame_username at 7:09 AM on April 4, 2007

Pizza delivery!

Not the best for someone in the country illegally, since you'll have to have a driver's license, but I know a few major chains in my city pay their driver's in cash nightly.

A pretty great job, as such jobs go.
posted by utsutsu at 7:12 AM on April 4, 2007

Research aper... Oy

Just a not on the restaurant jobs- I've found tons on the books, and very few under the table, but it is probably proportional to the establishment's size.
posted by conch soup at 7:20 AM on April 4, 2007

Yeah, basically anything that involves tips or the food service is under the table, since you are mostly dealing with cash revenue and not paychecks. I don't know many people in the business who report 100 percent of their tips, only the percentage of which there is a paper record.
posted by Brittanie at 7:21 AM on April 4, 2007

You know, hypothetically. Of course.
posted by Brittanie at 7:21 AM on April 4, 2007

nebulawindphone has got it. For employers, the easiest way is to put the word out into the immigrant community through current or past employees. There is always someone who knows someone, etc.
posted by kuujjuarapik at 7:24 AM on April 4, 2007

Find a small business. Offer to work for less off the books.
posted by xammerboy at 7:24 AM on April 4, 2007

As far as how they find each other, in my experience, it's mostly word-o-mouth.
posted by Brittanie at 7:24 AM on April 4, 2007

one of my favorite cafes is all under the table, I think most of the people who were there are either regular customers or friends of a previous worker or the owner. So i second the referral basis thing.

I had a American friend who was under 18 and on a parents visa who became homeless and lived on the street and my couch for a few months whilst he was in NZ, he got by through manual labour gigs and some kitchen hand jobs, but the pay was pretty pathetic (less than half minimum wage). I believe he got them just by approaching people/cafes and asking if they had any work for cash, also he spent a lot of time bumming for change on their street so they got to know him anyway through that.

Depends what you mean by under the table though, if you mean physical cash in hand, a lot of labouring jobs, fruit picking, manual labour, kitchen work can often be under the table. I've worked for some animal rights organizations who've paid straight into my bank account and i've been instructed that I will need to pay my own tax (normally the employer pays the tax directly to the govt for you).
posted by chrisbucks at 7:30 AM on April 4, 2007

Almost any type of small business, and any kind of work where you should probably be an independant contractor. Larger businesses, including restaurants, can't afford to get away with not reporting employees.

I had a friend years ago who did lapdancing. It's apparently not uncommon in such establishments for the girls, after passing muster, to pay the club a fee that entitles them to dance for tips.

Another variation of working off-books involves a business owner massaging the letter of the law to keep from having to issue a 1099, thus relieving the worker from having to report the income.
posted by desuetude at 7:40 AM on April 4, 2007

I knew a girl from the who came to the US as a "nanny" on a tourist visa and well overstayed her visa (by years). She didn't want to be a nanny anymore so her boyfriend (american) registered a business. This allowed her to do freelance work for people and the "business" invoiced the client. This allowed her to be an under the table employee of her boyfriend's "business."
posted by necessitas at 7:41 AM on April 4, 2007

jobs at copy shops are frequently this way. I was paid in cash every friday for making readers at UC Berkeley by this really weird boss in Bancroft Ave.
posted by parmanparman at 7:43 AM on April 4, 2007

The under-the-table aspect of restaurant work is being blown WAY out of proportion here. It's far LESS common than you're being led to believe. As far as tips go, you have to pay taxes on a percentage of your sales, because as far as the IRS is concerned, tips are income and must be reported. Nobody keeps track, of course, but one of the things that the auditors look for is reporting that you got exactly 10% of your sales every single day.

I would think manual labor type stuff would be more commonly found under the table.
posted by Mr. Gunn at 7:44 AM on April 4, 2007

Darn near any job can be done under-the-table. Graphic design jobs can be done this way, for instance. Or, so I've heard...~wink wink~
posted by Thorzdad at 7:47 AM on April 4, 2007

I've worked for some animal rights organizations who've paid straight into my bank account and i've been instructed that I will need to pay my own tax (normally the employer pays the tax directly to the govt for you).

If they are reporting it to the government as a 1099, that's not really below the table.
posted by grouse at 7:50 AM on April 4, 2007

Mom and Pop or family-owned type retail stores will usually pay under the table. Having less than three to five employees is usually a good sign that under-the-table will be the case.

Marketing promotions (jobs where you go to an event with a logo t-shirt on and hand out samples or contest entry forms or whatnot) usually seem to pay under the table, although the official line is that you are an 'independent contractor' and it is therefore "up to you" to declare the income. Which, of course, no one does.
posted by Kololo at 8:10 AM on April 4, 2007

"Under the table" tends to apply less to jobs per se than to services, such as the freelance design stuff mentioned above. All sorts of services can be under the table, from home repair/handyman things to lawn care to cleaning to delivery and even secretarial or computer repair. The key is that these are jobs where the primary, if not exclusive, thing sold is labor.

Being paid, or paying, under the table is a representation of the desperation of the recipient, or the cheapness of the solicitor.
posted by dhartung at 8:18 AM on April 4, 2007

Professional musician. I *ahem* hear many less scrupulous than I don't receive too many 1099's...
posted by sourwookie at 8:27 AM on April 4, 2007

desuetude and others, if you're interested in the strange system of how exotic dancers get paid, check out the fascinating book Candy Girl by Diablo Cody.
posted by vytae at 8:28 AM on April 4, 2007

for the record: prostitution is not illegal everywhere. in germany, it's actually a taxable and insurable profession.

bartending is pretty much always under the table. back in college, when I was broke and desperate, I walked into a bunch of bars until one gave me a gig. I made $600 in one night and would have come back hadn't they noticed I had no clue.
posted by krautland at 8:40 AM on April 4, 2007

I know someone who frequently does IT work under the table. Zie starts by getting home clients and spreads by word of mouth to businesses. Small companies are quite willing to pay under the table, especially if you are willing to go below market scale on hourly rates. Or so I hear.
posted by Cat Pie Hurts at 8:42 AM on April 4, 2007

(Sorry, that was really unclear. I didn't mean to emply that most restaurant workers are under the table — just that for almost any job you can do in a restaurant, you can find a place that'll hire you under the table to do it.)
posted by nebulawindphone at 9:04 AM on April 4, 2007

1. find a home depot or other large hardware store.

2. find the group of people standing around looking forlorn.

3. stand with them and wait for someone to drive up with truck and ask questions like: can any of you guys do roofing, lay cement, dig ditches etc?

4. say yes.

5. welcome to the underground economy.
posted by Max Power at 9:04 AM on April 4, 2007

There are a few sorts of under the table jobs as you can see here.

1. Low-end ones which are historically done by people in the underclass who may not have proper documentation for working or a criminal record or whatever else. These jobs, in the US, often require low levels of English and skillsets. Because the people who work them are often doing so somewhat below the radar, these jobs can be terrible since the people doing them have no legal recourse if they aren't paid or compensated fairly. Not all these workers are unskilled, they just often have common skillsets (roofers, nannies, farm workers) so their position at their job is easily replaced by someone else.

2. Cash-payment jobs involving a high tip to paycheck ratio such as bartenders and waiters, cab drivers, strippers. In many cases the actual low wages are above ground but the tip wages are under the table (as in should be reported but are often not, or are underreported). Jobs are usually more highly skilled and burden of reporting (i.e. who gets in trouble if there is an issue with the IRS) gets shifted to the worker not the employer.

3. Quasi-legal or illegal professions -- sex workers in most of the US, drug dealers, illegal gambling or unlicensed speakeasy type places -- this is money that according to the powers that be shouldn't even exist anyhow, so it's not taxed though it can be reported on your taxes (sorry Al Capone and the Moon church) for the truly dilligent. I see these as the black market service industry.

4. Freelancers of many stripes -- these can be IT workers, designers, public speakers, writers, whatever. Basically any situation where you get paid for one-off work but the person who pays you does not submit a 1099 for you. Technically you are supposed to report this income on your taxes even if the person who pays you does not. Realistically many people don't and play the averages that the IRS will not come down on them. While the people making the payments may not think of the money they spend as "under the table" it can wind up that way. Lately, I've noticed in my own line of work that people have gotten more dilligent in filing the relevant paperwork for 1099 money, so any time I get paid more than $600 in honorariums/reimbursements, I get a 1099 for it.
posted by jessamyn at 9:18 AM on April 4, 2007

I just read a great book related to this subject called "Off the books". It focuses specifically on urban forms of work, but it may be insightful regarding the process of finding employers and employees. Adding to jassamyn's list, it also discusses non-monetary trading (like service for service or good for service).
posted by B-squared at 9:35 AM on April 4, 2007

Usually you have some relationship with the employer under the "I know this guy" or "My friends knows this guy" heading, especially for service work.

Sometimes, if you have a useful skill, lapdancing for example, someone will offer you a job which pays "under the table," but even there they'll have some sort of ad hoc interview to make sure you're the type of person open to such an arraignment before they offer it.

If you show up somewhere asking about "under the table" right out of the box it will likely, depending on setting, be assumed you're working with law enforcement and trying to bust someone out, or you're at least devoid of the subtlety needed to make such arrangement hassle-free for both parties and your opposite will profess ignorance. This is something you've got to ease up on.

The point being that under the table work is like Zen, if you look for it, you won't find it, but it does have a way of finding you.

Don't forget the drawbacks to under the table work, especially if you're injured on the job, or an employer with an injured off-the-books employee. You can get jammed up pretty good for such things. The nice thing about it is, however, that you do the work, someone puts the cash in your hand, and you part ways, no muss no fuss.
posted by Elvis at 9:49 AM on April 4, 2007

Rob Cockerham ( recently did a list of "where can you find day laborers?" for various cities and towns around the world as part of his fun "Local Knowledge" series.
posted by Rock Steady at 9:50 AM on April 4, 2007

Tutoring is always off the books in my experience. This includes tutoring for elementary, secondary and college students.

As to how you find these gigs, it is through word of mouth. A parent that has been happy with your work as a Math tutor will ask you to recommend an English tutor.
posted by mlis at 10:13 AM on April 4, 2007

I hire my own personal care attendants (home health aides) through a consumer directed program, and a lot of the people who respond to my ads are looking for off-the-books work. It's so prevalent that the on-the-books status is the very first thing I tell jobseekers. (And then some even try to argue with me or suggest shady hiring practices, but no can do.)
posted by Soliloquy at 10:41 AM on April 4, 2007

In the country if a guy doesn't want to pay child support he gets work logging or cutting firewood.

Don't hate me Forest Industry.
posted by cda at 10:59 AM on April 4, 2007

There's a lot of this type of work at nightclubs, at least here around DC. I have a day-job-friend who works nights at two different clubs, currently doing coat check, and will switch to cocktail waitress when the weather gets better. She's absolutely cleaning up. Her "salary" AND her tips are completely under the table. She says once she moves to cocktail waitressing, she'll move to a strip club, because the (clothed) waitresses make lots better tips there.
posted by ersatzkat at 2:31 PM on April 4, 2007

k8t, I keep telling you you can stay at my place for free if you have to.

I don't know if you've read it yet, but Nickled and Dimed is a good narrative of people living under-the-table lives.
posted by Deathalicious at 3:18 PM on April 4, 2007

Sign up with a temp agency. Lots of times while you're on assignment, employers will offer to pay you directly (instead of paying through the agency).
posted by Oriole Adams at 8:15 PM on April 4, 2007

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