24 of the Most Underpaid (and Underappreciated) Jobs in America

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women hugging in support at support group in community center
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GIVE THEM A RAISE

There's honor in an honest day's work, but honor doesn't pay the bills. Sadly, workers filling service-oriented jobs in fields like food preparation, childcare, and even emergency medicine are often the ones receiving the most meager paychecks. Cheapism examined data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics to find two dozen jobs where workers are making far less than the average U.S. worker despite their important duties.

emergency services dispatcher
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EMERGENCY DISPATCHERS

Average hourly wage: $20.20
Where they make the most: California ($61,620)
Where they make the least: Puerto Rico ($19,980)
Emergency dispatchers are on the receiving end of 911 calls, dispatching first responders to panicked people who may barely be able to remember their own name, let alone where they are. For this critical job, they earn an average of $42,020 a year, or about 17 percent less than the average U.S. worker.

female airline passenger having bag searched by TSA
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TRANSPORTATION SECURITY SCREENERS

Average hourly wage: $19.69
Where they make the most: Alaska ($47,160 a year)
Where they make the least: New Mexico ($35,580 a year)
If the recent government shutdown taught us anything, it's that our transportation security screeners are absolutely vital — and absolutely underpaid, even with the government functioning as it should. The folks who keep guns and bombs off our planes make an average of only $40,960 a year, or 19.1 percent less than the average U.S. worker.

counselor taking notes while analyzing behavior of young man
Photo credit: KatarzynaBialasiewicz/istockphoto

REHABILITATION COUNSELORS

Average hourly wage: $18.73
Where they make the most: Alaska ($60,840 a year)
Where they make the least: Tennessee ($23,900 a year)
Rehabilitation counselors help those who've suffered from injury, illness, addiction, or other life-altering conditions get back into the swing of daily life. And while it's a job that may be personally fulfilling, it's not exactly a financial gold mine. Rehab counselors make an average of $38,950 a year, or 23.1 percent less than the average U.S. worker.

two raccoons caught in a live trap outdoors
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ANIMAL CONTROL WORKERS

Average hourly wage: $18.07
Where they make the most: Washington ($51,990 a year)
Where they make the least: Mississippi ($24,350 a year)
When's the last time you trapped a potentially rabid racoon, removed a crocodile from a porch, or corralled an aggressive stray dog? Animal control workers never know what the day will bring, unless you count a low paycheck. They make an average of $37,580 a year, or 25.8 percent less than the average U.S. worker.

paramedics helping a patient
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EMERGENCY MEDICAL TECHNICIANS AND PARAMEDICS

Average hourly wage: $17.64
Where they make the most: Washington ($68,170 a year)
Where they make the least: Puerto Rico ($22,130 a year)
First responders earn a lot of much-deserved praise from politicians, but praise doesn't keep the lights on and the heater cranking. For their life-and-death duties, EMTs and paramedics make an average of $36,700 a year — that's 27.5 percent less than the average U.S. worker.

man spraying pesticide in kitchen
Photo credit: AndreyPopov/istockphoto

PEST CONTROL WORKERS

Average hourly wage: $17.60
Where they make the most: Massachusetts ($47,280 a year)
Where they make the least: Puerto Rico ($22,460 a year)
They shimmy into dank, dark spaces, deal with toxic chemicals, and get an up close and personal view of the critters that give the rest of us the creeps. Pest control workers do a job that very few of us are willing to do, but they make an average annual salary of only $36,610, or 27.7 percent less than the average U.S. worker.

happy customer service agent working on the phone
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CUSTOMER SERVICE REPRESENTATIVES

Average hourly wage: $17.14
Where they make the most: Washington, D.C. ($46,700 a year)
Where they make the least: Puerto Rico ($22,880 a year)
Customer service can be a brutal field. Representatives often bear the brunt of customers' anger or frustration, and their job means resisting the all-too-human urge to take it personally. They have to solve problems they didn't cause as quickly as possible, often enduring more vitriol in the process. But they earn an average of just $35,650 a year, or 29.6 percent less than the average U.S. worker.

mature mental health professional talks with teenagers
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SOCIAL AND HUMAN SERVICE ASSISTANTS

Average hourly wage: $17.05
Where they make the most: California ($44,090 a year)
Where they make the least: Puerto Rico ($23,720 a year)
Anyone who works in social services can tell you that supporting at-risk community members and helping them benefit from government programs can be enormously rewarding, but also enormously draining. This essential job pays an average of just $35,460 a year, or about 30 percent less than the average U.S. worker makes.

hospital phlebotomist taking a sample from a patient
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PHLEBOTOMISTS

Average hourly wage: $16.69
Where they make the most: California ($43,380 a year)
Where they make the least: Puerto Rico ($23,700 a year)
We'd love it if the folks charged with sticking needles into our arms were fairly compensated. But phlebotomists, who draw blood for all sorts of critical procedures, make an average of only $34,710 a year. That's 31.4 percent less than the average U.S. worker.

preschool teacher teaching kids to clap to song
Photo credit: FatCamera/istockphoto

PRESCHOOL TEACHERS

Average hourly wage: $16.15
Where they make the most: New York ($44,310 a year)
Where they make the least: Puerto Rico ($21,630 a year)
Little Jimmy had a potty accident, Sophia glued her construction paper turkey to her desk, and no one seems to want to nap during rest time. In other words, it's a typical day for a preschool teacher, who makes a paltry average of $33,590 a year, 33.6 percent less than the average U.S. worker.

pharmacy technician taking inventory
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PHARMACY TECHNICIANS

Average hourly wage: $15.90
Where they make the most: Washington ($42,440 a year)
Where they make the least: Puerto Rico ($21,620 a year)
Pharmacy technicians are largely responsible for filling your prescriptions correctly, labeling them accurately, taking inventory of medications, and fielding customers' questions. But they're paid an average of $33,060 a year for these very important tasks, 34.7 percent less than the average U.S. worker.

mature woman driving a school bus
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SCHOOL OR SPECIAL CLIENT BUS DRIVERS

Average hourly wage: $15.45
Where they make the most: Washington, D.C. ($43,420 a year)
Where they make the least: Puerto Rico ($17,560 a year)
Whether they're transporting school kids, the elderly, or the disabled, bus drivers are charged with getting some of our most vulnerable populations safely where they need to go. It's a critical job that doesn't come with a big salary — about $32,130 a year, or 36.5 percent less than the average U.S. worker.

security guard listening to earpiece against building
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SECURITY GUARDS

Average hourly wage: $14.78
Where they make the most: Alaska ($46,770 a year)
Where they make the least: Puerto Rico ($18,340 a year)
Security guards are always supposed to be on high alert for fights, theft, break-ins, or other problems, but in this era of mass shootings, there's undoubtedly a new layer of anxiety. They make an average of $30,730 a year, 39.3 percent less than the average U.S. worker.

man smiling at senior patient in wheelchair
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PSYCHIATRIC AIDES

Average hourly wage: $14.10
Where they make the most: Minnesota ($43,140 a year)
Where they make the least: Mississippi ($19,170 a year)
Overseeing activities for mental health patients, cleaning up after them, monitoring moods and vitals, diffusing outbursts, and even restraining patients in the event of a serious disturbance is all in a day's work for a psychiatric aide. This draining job nets an average of $29,330 a year, or 42.1 percent less than the average U.S. worker.

home healthcare nurse helps woman get out of bed
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NURSING ASSISTANTS

Average hourly wage: $13.72
Where they make the most: Alaska ($37,950 a year)
Where they make the least: Puerto Rico ($20,610 a year)
Nursing assistants are often responsible for the nitty-gritty of patient care: things like grooming, bathing, and transporting patients or cleaning up accidents. However, they may also perform more involved tasks like monitoring IVs or documenting patients' behavior. These crucial duties earn them an average of $28,540 a year, 43.6 percent less than the average U.S. worker.

janitor cleaning floor
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JANITORS

Average hourly wage: $13.41
Where they make the most: Massachusetts ($35,300 a year)
Where they make the least: Puerto Rico ($19,730 a year)
They clean up messy conference rooms in office buildings and puddles of puke at elementary schools. They shovel snow from parking lots in the dead of winter and keep the air conditioner cranking in the heat of summer. Still, janitors make only $27,900 a year, 44.9 percent less than the average U.S. worker.

funeral attendant standing with hands folded
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FUNERAL ATTENDANTS

Average hourly wage: $13.04
Where they make the most: New Hampshire ($43,600 a year)
Where they make the least: Puerto Rico ($20,290 a year)
Dealing with grieving families can't be the easiest job, but funeral attendants handle it with grace, making sure we can pay our respects without any logistical hiccups. This delicate job nets them an average of just $27,120 a year, 46.4 percent less than the salary of the average U.S. worker.

professional chef garnishing food
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RESTAURANT COOKS

Average hourly wage: $12.71
Where they make the most: Hawaii ($34,870 a year)
Where they make the least: Puerto Rico ($18,550 a year)
Unless you're frequenting restaurants run by well-compensated celebrity chefs, the people preparing your meal probably aren't making enough cash to regularly eat out themselves. Restaurant cooks, charged not only with making our meals tasty but preparing them safely, make an average of just $26,440 a year, 47.8 percent less than the typical U.S. worker.

man sowing the land at a farm
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FARMWORKERS AND LABORERS

Average hourly wage: $12.05
Where they make the most: Nebraska ($36,580 a year)
Where they make the least: Puerto Rico ($19,360 a year)
Without them, we don't have crops; without crops, we don't have food. Still, there's a well-documented shortage of farm workers in the U.S., and it's no wonder. The long hours and back-breaking physical labor net them an average of only $25,070 a year, 50.5 percent less than the average U.S. worker.

happy chambermaid folding the towels and putting them on the bed for the guests
Photo credit: andresr/istockphoto

MAIDS AND HOUSEKEEPERS

Average hourly wage: $11.84
Where they make the most: Hawaii ($38,290 a year)
Where they make the least: Puerto Rico ($19,240 a year)
In homes, hotels, hospitals, and other spots, we depend on cleaners to keep our surroundings tidy and sanitary. We trust them with access to some of our most intimate spaces. Tip them well, because despite the long, physical hours, they're making an average of just $24,630 a year, or 51.3 percent less than the average U.S. worker.

happy elder woman sitting on white sofa and listening to nurse reading a book out loud
Photo credit: dragana991/istockphoto

HOME HEALTH AIDES

Average hourly wage: $11.67
Where they make the most: North Dakota ($33,940 a year)
Where they make the least: Puerto Rico ($18,290 a year)
The disabled and the elderly depend on home health aides to help them with things they can't do themselves, whether that's managing health issues or completing daily chores like bathing and grooming. But the selfless folks who fill this role make an average of just $24,280 a year, 52 percent less than the average U.S. worker.

childcare worker playing with babies
Photo credit: FatCamera/istockphoto

CHILDCARE WORKERS

Average hourly wage: $11.42
Where they make the most: Washington, D.C. ($32,330 a year)
Where they make the least: Puerto Rico ($17,820 a year)
Whether a childcare worker is charged with keeping tots safe and happy all day at a daycare or for just an hour or two at a gym or church, it's a crucial and often thankless task. Sadly, the people we trust with our children make an average of just $23,760 a year, or 53.1 percent less than the average U.S. worker.

mountain rescue-man standing on his snow sled on a top of the mountain and enjoying a panoramic view
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RECREATIONAL PROTECTIVE SERVICE WORKERS

Average hourly wage: $11.33
Where they make the most: Hawaii ($39,120 a year)
Where they make the least: Idaho ($18,420 a year)
Lifeguards, ski patrollers, and amusement safety workers are just a few of the people charged with keeping us safe when we just want to have fun, but they make very little for their efforts — an average of $23,570 a year, or 53.4 percent less than the average U.S. worker.

food workers in a kitchen
Photo credit: Eva-Katalin/istockphoto

FOOD PREPARATION AND SERVICE WORKERS

Average hourly wage: $10.21
Where they make the most: Washington, D.C. ($29,120 a year)
Where they make the least: Puerto Rico ($17,560 a year)
The 3.5 million folks we trust to prepare and serve our food, whether that's at a fast-food restaurant, school, specialty store, or somewhere else, make an average of just $21,230 a year. That's 58 percent less than the average U.S. workers' salary, $50,620.

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