(Opinion) — Jimmy had a puzzled look when he asked his mother if he could talk to her about his latest school assignment.
“Sure,” she said. “What can I help you with? Just remember that I’m not that good at math.”
“My teacher wants us to write about what job we want to have when we grow up,” the 11-year-old said. “We’re supposed to pick something that’s fun that we think we’re good at, but a job where we could make enough money to take care of our family.
“I thought about Uncle Ben’s job, working at the coal mine,” Jimmy continued. “I know he said it’s dangerous, but he makes a lot of money and he bought that great house in Gillette that Aunt Jane said she always wanted.”
His mother hesitated, wondering how to break some bad news to her son about his favorite uncle. Now seemed like a good time to talk about it.
“I’m afraid Ben just lost his job at the mine,” she began. “The price of coal is way down, and people say it’s going to be used less and less because burning it for electricity pollutes the air and causes the world’s climate to change. You’ll probably learn more about that in school.”
“We’ve already talked about it, and I know it’s bad,” he said. “But I sure wish it didn’t make Uncle Ben lose his job. That really stinks. But I didn’t want to be a coal miner anyway.”
“What do you want to do?” she asked.
“I really like football. I know I’m too small to be any good at playing it, but maybe I could learn how to be a good coach. How much do they make?”
His mother picked up her laptop and began typing. “Well, it says the head football coach at the University of Wyoming makes a minimum of $903,700 per year, and he’s got a contract for five years.”
“Wow, that’s way more than I thought!” Jimmy exclaimed. “That’s what I want to be — and I wouldn’t even have to leave Wyoming, so I could still live with you and Dad.”
His mother grinned. “Well, I hope you’d buy us a new house with all that money you’ll be making,” she said. “But like I’ve always told you, money isn’t everything, and coaching is a tough job. Unless you keep winning, a lot of coaches in every sport get fired, too.”
They sat silent for a while. “You could work for the state, like your Dad,” his mother finally said. “He doesn’t make as much as a miner or a football coach, but he likes his job and he isn’t likely to get fired.”
“I don’t know,” Jimmy said haltingly. “I heard Dad on the phone the other day, and he said he hasn’t had a raise in two years and now the stupid Legislature made it so he can’t get one for the next two years. … He didn’t actually say ‘stupid,’ Mom — he said the ‘f-word.'”
“Somehow I already knew that, Jimmy,” she said, shaking her head. “But it’s true — you know how hard your father works, and the state rewards him by not giving him a raise for years. And those ‘stupid’ people won’t let his boss hire any more help, so everyone in Dad’s office has to work even harder to get everything done.”
“But that’s not fair! Geez, I don’t want to work for the state if that’s how they treat people,” he said, and then he remembered something else. “But Mom, some state workers get raises.”
“I don’t think so, kiddo. There’s a wage freeze and a hiring freeze. Wyoming doesn’t have as much money as it used to, since it can’t collect as much in taxes from coal, oil and gas to run the government. The governor and the Legislature said we all have to tighten our belts, especially state employees.”
“No, that’s not true,” Jimmy corrected her. “Go to the newspaper website. I saw a story about how some people in the governor’s office are making a lot more money now. They all got big raises.”
“That can’t be right,” she said, turning to her computer again. “You must have read it wrong.”
“No, there it is — ‘Top officials in Wyoming Governor’s Office see steep raises.‘ I told you!”
His mother started reading the article. “It says the governor raised his chief of staff’s salary nearly 40 percent over the past two years — she was making $126,000 a year and now her salary is $175,000! Good Lord, how is that possible?”
“Maybe she’s doing a really good job,” Jimmy said.
“I don’t care — nobody deserves that big of a raise,” his mother said. “Boy, your father is going to use a lot of f-words when he finds out about this.”
She went back to her screen and read some more. “It says some other people who work for the governor got 20 percent raises. How can they do that when other state employees are getting nothing?”
“Yeah, and miners like Uncle Ben are losing their jobs, so they’re not even getting paid at all,” Jimmy said. He was quiet for a moment, then brightened.
“The governor must really make a lot of money, if the people who work for him get that much,” he said. “I want to be the governor of Wyoming! Can you look up his salary?”
“I know it from that civics class I took last summer — he makes $105,000 a year,” his mother said. “That’s $70,000 less than his chief of staff.”
“I suppose I could tell my teacher I want to be a chief of staff, but I don’t know what they do,” her son said. “Besides, the name sounds really boring.”
“It also says here that the Legislature tried to put in the budget that state employees who make over $100,000 can’t get raises for the next two years,” his mother said. “But the governor vetoed it — that means he wouldn’t let it happen — so he’s apparently free to give his staff whatever he wants to and people like your Dad are just supposed to be happy they have a job.
“It’s not fair,” she said, and Jimmy gave her a hug.
“That’s what I told you,” he said. “Hey Mom, besides being the governor, what’s the hardest job in Wyoming?”
“I think it’s got to be the governor’s press secretary,” she replied. “Because he’s got to explain these enormous raises to everyone so they won’t complain and get mad at his boss. That’s going to be impossible. You can’t give your own people that big of a raise while asking everyone else to cut back! What is that man thinking?”
She turned back to the article. “According to this, the state has hired a company called the Hay Group to review salaries, and they say the chief of staff’s new one is ‘appropriate.’ Of course they do.”
“Well, thanks for the help, Mom. Sorry to get you upset,” Jimmy said. “I know we’re not supposed to copy anyone else’s ideas, but I think I’ll just tell my teacher I’m going to do the same thing my friend Martin wants to do.”
“He’s going to go to UW, ’cause it doesn’t cost as much as most colleges, and he’s going to learn how to be a lawyer or an engineer or an actor or an athletic trainer, and then he said he’s going to get the heck out of Wyoming and move to another state where it’s a lot easier to find a job that pays good.
“But don’t worry, Mom. I’ll still buy you and Dad a house where we all can live, it just won’t be in Wyoming.”
“But your Dad and I like it here,” she said. “Can’t you go somewhere else and make some money and then come back? That’s what your Uncle Ben did.”
Jimmy just rolled his eyes. “Yeah, Mom. How’s that working out for him?”
— Columns are the signed perspective of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of WyoFile’s staff, board of directors or its supporters. WyoFile welcomes guest columns and op-ed pieces from all points of view. If you’d like to write a guest column for WyoFile, please contact interim editor Matthew Copeland at email@example.com.