This week is the one year anniversary of my getting a job in the USA. It’s been an interesting year.
To recap, I am the Deputy Treasurer at my local city hall. This mostly involves taking payments for utilities and taxes, and billing out for other costs incurred by the city. In theory this isn’t too different from what I was doing in the UK. I was working in accounts payable at the university and accounts receivable for the ambulance company before that. I’ve worked for local government too, and over the years I have provided a lot of customer service. A lot! This, and my winning personality was clearly enough to get me the job.
Firstly, I need to say I am really grateful for this job, it helps me engage with my community, gets me out of the house, helps pay the bills and is easy to get to. In the ongoing battle to get my fibro meds stable here (that’s a whole different post) being able to work part time and walk to work is hugely beneficial. I work with a great team and we have a laugh. But, and I’m sure you could sense the “but” coming, working in America, well this part of rural America, is very different from the UK and it has taken me some time to adjust.
So how is it different? We take a lot of things for granted in the UK, foremost amongst them generally good, mostly standardized, rates of pay for jobs requiring a degree, our statutory 28 days paid holiday (thank you Europe!) and sick pay. In the USA, I don’t get holiday pay or sick pay and I don’t get paid for days that the city is closed for national holidays. I also don’t get healthcare or a pension. Luckily my husband can put me on his healthcare plan, otherwise I would have to pay privately for one.
Dollar for pound I earn more or less the same rate I earned in the UK, a little over 11 dollars/pounds. Minimum wage in Michigan is $9.25. If you factor in the exchange rate today, I’m earning £8.53, (minimum wage in the UK is £7.50) so while it’s not a bad wage locally, (it’s about what Walmart pays), I had a misconception that having a degree in the USA would earn me a better rate of pay. I think it is a misconception also shared by many locals, so I am not alone and it isn’t just an expat thing. I guess it’s why they say local government is a calling! For a while it bothered me, but then I weighed up the benefits of where I worked, against traveling for better wages and decided I was doing ok.
On the plus side, I’m paid fortnightly, (even though America doesn’t have a word for fortnight, which makes me smile), which I actually find easier than monthly for scheduling bill payments.
In terms of my actual job, the weirdest thing to get used to was the money, both cash and checks (cheques). The coins have names here and the denominations are slightly different: 1c, 5c,(nickel) 10c,(dime) 25c, (quarter) 50c as opposed to 1p, 2p, 5p, 20p, 50p. So for a while I had to really think about quarters not being the same as 20p. The notes are all the same size and varying shades of green, so you have to look at the denomination. And checks? I have never seen so many since I worked for TSB Bank, and that was thirty years ago. Everyone here pays mostly by cash or check, with no check guarantee cards. So checks bounce. It is crazy. You can even phone up to pay bills using your routing number (sort code) and account number, without proving it is your account. Paying by card is expensive as there is a “convenience fee” for each transaction. America is only just introducing chip and pin, and like roundabouts, it is causing a lot of confusion.
There isn’t online-real-time banking, if you pay a bill online via your bank, the bank cuts a check and sends it to your creditor. There aren’t many national banks, the credit union I bank with, ( a credit union is a non-profit like the Co-Op) “serves those who live, work, worship or attend school in Alger, Baraga, Dickinson, Iron and Marquette counties.” so that’s roughly like only existing in the West Midlands. They aren’t even statewide. Lots of people don’t even direct deposit their pay. We send out pay checks and supplier checks every two weeks, it’s a lot of paper. I guess since one of the local industries is logging, it’s part of the circle of life.
In contrast, in the UK, the university I worked for didn’t even have a cheque printer, if you couldn’t receive an online bank to bank payment, the university wouldn’t do business with you. Likewise when I did payroll for the ambulance company it was all uploaded online, and after security log ins, one button paid everyone in real time. People here don’t seem to trust banks or their government. So in the billing department of local government I’m pretty much two for two.
But it’s not all weird. One of the loveliest parts of working with the public here, is that nearly everyone who notices my accent wants to tell me about the time they visited England, or where they were stationed (usually in East Anglia) or their ancestors. Nice out of ten of the ancestors were tin miners from Cornwall, they came here to mine iron ore after the tin ran out. It’s why the local UP delicacy is pasties. I am now used to being a representative of the whole of the UK on any subject in the news. Brexit was hot news for a while but has been mostly overtaken by the Royal Wedding. (Just as intended I cynically ask?). Most people think I am crazy for moving to the UP and they all ask what I think of the winters.
My accent also provides my colleagues with some amusement. There is often a confused pause when I answer the phone, as callers stop to check they dialed the right number and haven’t accidentally made an international call. More than a few callers have then explained really slowly that they live at So and So Street, which is in the City of Where We All Work, presumably thinking they have got through to a faraway call centre, staffed by foreigners. There is a standing offer of money from my supervisor, if I will one day answer the phone “Good Afternoon, Buckingham Palace”
We also get our share of interesting encounters with the public. I had a gentleman come in, six months before the clocks changed, to remind us that the city had to change everyone’s clocks. Then he came back a week later to tell me it was OK, he’d heard from the CIA and they were going to do it. No sleep to be lost there then! And then there was the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request regarding the eight, escaped pigs, downtown.
Reflecting on the past year, it’s been a lot to learn, but I feel like I’m managing reasonably well. While in some ways it feels like stepping back in time with the cash and checks and adding machines, there are enough new things to learn to keep myself challenged and engaged. There are a lot of pluses: I’m part of a good team and we laugh a lot. As a team we socialize outside of work. I recently attended my first professional networking meeting and met fellow treasurers. I now know far more about my local community than I could ever have learned on my own as an expat.
As tempting as it can sometimes be as an immigrant, I feel it is a mistake to continually compare where you live now to your home country. When you try to balance one year ‘s experience against thirty (in my case), familiarity is going to color your judgement. A comfort zone is called that for a reason and like Rome, comfort zones aren’t built in a day or even a year. I also have to remember that in the time I have been away, England hasn’t stood still and what I remember may no longer reflect what it is like now. So it is an easy trap to fall into, pining for a memory of something that isn’t even there anymore, to the detriment of your new life. While emigrating definitely means I have lost out in terms of pay, career progression and benefits, it was unavoidable and a choice I made willingly, and would make again, What is surely more and most important, is that I’m happy in my work and hope I will be here for a while, and I need to take that for the win.
Working Girl is a glorious, 80s, feel good movie, starring Melanie Griffith, Joan Cusack and Sigourney Weaver, that shows how with a lot of ambition, a ton of talent, a little luck and heaps of hair, you can get out of the typing pool and win the heart of Harrison Ford. I love it! Worth watching for the quotes alone and a fantastic uplifting soundtrack. Top tip: don’t confuse it with the title Working Girls!