The interviews when I applied for financial assistance from the government were humiliating. As kind as some of the workers at the Department of Health and Human Services were, the questions they had to ask forced me to share intimate details of my life I would have otherwise keep private.
This got me thinking about the right to privacy as a privilege for the powerful few.
The working class has known for generations — even when labor unions were strong, and wages and benefits were more fair — that hourly wage jobs typically depend on a hierarchical employer-employee dynamic. Among other power inequalities, workers have little control over their privacy, while owners retain control over their own private lives.
As more people take jobs earning hourly wages with no benefits, more people are faced with the reality that the “American Dream” is just a dream.
Most people who work, whether for hourly wages or for salaries, give up some of their privacy as they enter a relationship with their employer. Hourly wage workers — three-fifths of our workforce, according to the Department of Labor — are put into positions of submission more extreme than their fellow workers who earn salaries.
Employers track hourly workers’ time, minute by minute. The employer typically dictates when the worker can take a break or eat meals, and the worker must ask permission for any personal time.
The freedom most salaried workers enjoy allows them to protect their privacy more than their hourly wage counterparts. They usually eat when they want to and take breaks as is comfortable for them. They don’t have to share their physical needs as often with their employer (bathroom, food, cigarettes, doctor’s appointments).
Writing this column, I am choosing to share intimate details of my life with readers. When I was desperate and turned to the state of Maine and the federal government for help, I had no choice. I had to share intimacies of my personal life with strangers.
I felt exposed and vulnerable at a time when I was already afraid and ashamed. I imagine someone in a similar position, but with even more challenging life circumstances, would feel the intrusion even more.
Why do I not have enough money to care for my children? Is my ex-husband a “deadbeat dad”? No. Not at all. But here are the excruciatingly personal details that will explain my financial crisis.
It makes sense to me that people earning hourly wages would resent another “big hand of government” intruding in their personal lives. It also makes sense to me that people beaten down by wages too low for survival would resent the submissive position they are forced into. The lower the wage, the more demeaning the intrusions on the workers’ privacy.
Fifty-eight percent of the jobs added since the recession’s end have been low-wage jobs. There are more people resenting those with the power to dictate when and how much privacy they will be allowed.
As we know right here at home, Maine families are working harder than ever, but they still can’t pay their bills. Entrapped by the need for survival, workers across the country put up with Walmart-level wages and employment practices. The satisfaction and security that comes from supporting a family by working one job is not an option for many people.
There is no expectation that employers will respect workers’ privacy, and the sense that those in power are disrespectful carries over into a distrust of government. Government is, after all, run by corporations.
In effect, corporations — the employers — who run our government are telling the workers when they can or can’t visit the bathroom or go have a smoke. The owners run the workers’ lives in the most intimate ways, while the powerful elite comes and goes as it pleases.
In a study of the 50 companies that employ the most low-wage workers, chief executives made an average of $9.4 million a year. That buys a lot of privacy and plenty of freedom to protect it.
Heather Denkmire is a writer and artist who lives in Portland with her two young daughters. After a few challenging years, she is growing her small business, where her team helps nonprofit organizations win grants. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.