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Opinion: Bill Walton, The Prepaid Economy

Time is money, the old timers will say but . . .

More than once I heard my dad say time is money, usually when I stopped to catch my breath or do a little daydreaming while on the job. Maybe I was only piling slabs or hoeing a row of beans, but those words would haunt – well maybe just ring in my ears – all through my working years. And knowing Grandpa Walton, he likely said them to my father as the steamer Kawigamog was towing logs down the Pickerel River more than a hundred years ago.

I had a number of jobs (some were even called ‘positions’) over my working career and time seemed to be a big factor in all of them. Not just time is money, but being on time influenced the money earned to pay my (and others') wages. The family ran a school bus and being on time – getting the students to and fro on time was crucial to the school board – especially at contract renewal time. I learned to be on time or more favourably, a minute or two early, a trait that sometimes caught the host of a party off guard when you were expected to arrive, fashionably, 15 minutes late.

My first ‘salaried’ position was as a railroad telegrapher/operator. As you can easily imagine, keeping all the trains on schedule on the transcontinental rail line was very time-sensitive. One did not want to stop a train by mishandling a train order delivery for the butterfly effect could echo all across the whole country as meets and passes accommodated the half an hour it took for the express freight to stop, backup, retrieve the orders, and be on its way. Time was money to the CNR.

I did a gig doing construction work before I became a pencil pusher and eventually a professional bean counter. The company was doing the reconstruction of Fisher Street – don’t bother doing the math – and I was a Shovel Operator. That’s what we called ourselves – those fellows manning a No. 2 Jones round-mouth shovel. The fewer days we spent getting the work completed meant money in the company’s pockets, and we were reminded, the money that paid our wages. If the company was successful, they could bid on future jobs and we shovel operators could continue to earn wages. Time was money.

Being an accountant in the private sector, one becomes very familiar with the costs of doing business. There were the fixed costs of just being in business and the variable costs of doing whatever it was we were making – widgets or drill bits. Doing the payroll, you soon realized just how true that old saying of time being money was to our success. If one of the “associates” wasn’t pulling his or her weight, (time=money) they got a pink slip with their last pay cheque.

Circumstances conspired for me seeing an advertisement seeking Federal Excise Tax Auditors. Thinking to expand and test my accounting skills, I became a federal government employee. Dear old dad and his time is money must have rolled over. You see, the government works on a slightly different system: they are given the money (ours) and they need to fill in the time to spend it. Governments are not there to make a profit, but to provide a service; providing it in a manner resembling private sector work standards, but in a more measured pace of stretching the hours to fit the money available so we taxpayers can see our money at work: Money is time. I am calling it the prepaid economy.

It may be difficult to get your head around these two different concepts. In one instance, you work to earn money; in the other, you get the money to work. Human nature being what it is, one might be inclined to think a gig in the prepaid economy is more desirable. One might observe a Shovel Operator working for a private paving company where for about $19 per hour he or she hustles to get onto the next job site, whereas the Shovel Operator in the public sector, doing as adequate a job for say $24 per hour, knows that he or she only needs to fill in the day and maybe has a moment of respite to lean on the Jones No. 2 or check his or her cell phone.

There are, of course, challenges working in the prepaid economy. The public tends to scrutinize your work habits, measure your break times, take your picture, text the councillors (thank goodness there are no wards), and say things like ‘time is money’ as if. The lawn chair critics will say the public service should be run like a business but what business could rent out manicured ball diamonds or mowed soccer fields or provide an ice pad at rates that would give them a profit, because time is money. And no for-profit entrepreneur would even think about operating an ice palace like those managing the prepaid economy are proposing at City Hall. Oh, I forgot about Memorial Gardens.

The thing is, it is not only some of the folks in the prepaid economy who have this sense of being entitled to a certain wage because the money is already there but more and more, we are seeing workers wanting a piece of the profit – even before it is earned. I am not saying the Metro workers or the dock workers in BC did not need a better wage or working conditions, but one only needs to read the signs they were carrying to see some were gauging their worth (time is money) on the business’s bottom line, not what work/service they were providing.

Perhaps that is where we are heading: the prepaid economy. Talk of a guaranteed wage is another version of the prepaid economy, as indeed is the minimum wage, although one might find it difficult to argue that any job worth doing is not worth a minimum wage. Been there, done that as a Shovel Operator.

Now retired, I have my own motto about time and money: Time is priceless. Just saying.

Bill Walton

About the Author: Bill Walton

Retired from City of North Bay in 2000. Writer, poet, columnist
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