Opinion | You should be discussing your salary with your coworkers

By Paul Beer, Staff Columnist

For three years in high school, I worked a near-minimum wage job as a produce clerk at a local grocery store. Over that time, I learned how to succeed in multiple positions, train new employees as well as partially oversee opening and closing. 

Despite my evolving skills, my wage went up one time in those three years by $1. While training another employee who happened to be younger than me, he was curious as to how much I made. And when I told him, he laughed, and replied with confusion, “I’m making more than you.” 

At that exact moment, I learned two things. One, wages are indiscriminate. Two, you absolutely need to be discussing your pay with your coworkers.  

I brought this information to my manager and she replied with what seemed like earnest care. I worked hard and was one of the longest serving employees — grocery stores have high turnover rates — so she was also confused as to why my wage had never matched the new base pay. She quickly offered to fix this for me, but not without saying, “You shouldn’t be talking about your pay with your coworkers.”  

This left a sour taste in my mouth, as it does with anyone who has experienced reprimand for discussing money with coworkers in front of an employer. However, without this simple conversation with my trainee, I would’ve continued working at a lower pay than I was owed. 

Being told to hush up about your pay at work is a common anecdote among workers, but when is it truly illegal? Sometimes, workers will be told that discussing salary is against company policy, which means they could face punishment at work for these conversations. Some employers are savvy enough on the legal side — they may simply coerce you into stopping.  

Under the National Labor Relations Act, employees are granted full legal right to discuss wages with their coworkers. This includes discussing wages after work, on social media or even while on the clock, if talking is allowed. However, the company may have specific policies about using company property as a tool to discuss wages, like a mandated work phone or a walkie-talkie. The NLRA functions outside of the jurisdiction of a union, meaning non-unionized employees have these rights too. 

This also includes the right to petition for higher wages to your employer as a group. 

If your employer forbids you from having wage-related conversations, remind them that any action taken against you for doing so could result in a lawsuit. If anything about your position as an employee is compromised — your hours, your employment status, your paycheck — pursue legal action.

But be wary of exceptions to the NLRA — public-sector employees, agricultural and domestic workers and those covered by the Railway Labor Act.  

Employers do not want you to know that many wages are set arbitrarily, meaning that the worker needs to be diligent about having these conversations with coworkers. Sometimes, wages vary for good reason, such as number of years at the company, but other times it is simply circumstantial.

Corporations change base pay rate frequently, and will rarely ever tell you about it. Some companies will offer to include your prior raises as a factor when increasing your pay above the new pay rate, but others will not. Work with your coworkers to find a pay rate that works best for all of you. Though you may not be forming a union, check your employee handbook for union-esque rights that you benefit from.  

Become comfortable talking about your money with your coworkers. You are entitled to the pay that you deserve, and the only way to find out how much you “deserve” in the arbitrary system we have is to have these conversations with coworkers and your employer. Work under the assumption that corporations want to maximize their profits, undercutting you and even your store manager every step of the way. 

The hardest part is starting the conversation. The old adage says there are three things you should never talk about: religion, politics and money. Offer this conversation out as a helping hand, not as a nebby-nose. Inform your coworkers about their rights to discuss these things, and especially to petition it as a group to your employer. Create workplace unity. And don’t get beaten down too much if you learn that you’ve been working below your worth for some time — it’s a hard realization, but starting the conversation is the first step to fixing it. 

Money itself is stigmatized in America. That much is clear. But overcoming this stigma can give the workers more power and create a better workplace for everyone. 

Paul Beer writes about political affairs and reads too many album reviews. Write back to him (or send music recommendations) at [email protected].