Retire early on blue-collar pay? Totally do-able!

I’m often asked whether it’s possible to become financially independent and retire early on a blue-collar salary.


Not so long ago they had a dance at my daughter’s junior high school. As a chaperone I noticed the janitor was struggling to roll a big hopper of pizza boxes through the door. I held the door for her and helped her roll the thing up to the dumpster and empty it. Profuse thanks.
On the way back we were chatting about her and her job, and she told me she’d had a very unhappy childhood…abusive parents and shuffling around from foster home to foster home, etc. So helping take care of (mostly) happy and well-adjusted kids and feeling like part of a big extended family was pretty much her dream job.
So I thought about her when I caught this article from San Francisco’s KTVU, Fox 2, with the headline “BART janitor’s $270K pay raises questions.” (In case you’re wondering, BART = Bay Area Rapid Transit.)
The gist:

The janitor, Liang Zhao Zhang, earned $57,945 in base pay in 2015 for cleaning San Francisco’s Powell Street station. But according to public records uncovered by Transparent California, his also raked in an additional $162,050 in overtime, bringing his total salary and benefits that year to $271,243.

Could Zhang possibly carried that much overtime? Is he being honest? Let’s for the moment stipulate that he is, although as we’ll see further along it’s a debatable question.
But if he is, these two quotes from a California public accountability analyst give me the shrieking fantods:

“It’s absolutely outrageous,” said Robert Fellner, with Transparent California. Fellner has examined public employee salary information for years, and says he has never seen anything like this. “For janitors that’s obscene! It’s unconscionable!”


In one stretch during July 2015, Zhang worked 17 hour days for 18 days straight, according to timecard records.
“Super human!” said Fellner. “The average reaction to that is ‘How is that possible?'”

Christ, Fellner…clutch your pearls much? Here’s how it’s possible: you bust your ass. Clip this Dilbert–or at least the first five frames–and hang it up in your cubicle, would you?

I don’t condone cheating your employer by taking money under false pretenses; nor do I condone employers enhancing their bottom line by cheating employees of their time.
But continuing the assumption that Zhang is being honest, here’s a BART executive’s take:

BART’s Chief Transportation Officer Roy Aguilera says it’s possible because Zhang never refuses extra work and picks up much of the overtime hours offered.
Aguilera says the population of homeless people who spend time in the Powell Street station means the janitorial staff spends much of their time cleaning up urine, feces, and needles, which he calls “totally unacceptable.”
“People are not raising their hands and saying, ‘I want some of that overtime.’ Mr. Zhang has said yes, he’s worked hard, he’s completed his assignments, so I stand by the work he’s done,” Aguilera said.


But when 2 Investigates randomly checked on Zhang’s performance and timesheets, discrepancies and questions quickly arose. While inspecting two random days of surveillance video from BART’s own security cameras, KTVU investigators spotted Zhang working, sweeping, mopping on a riding machine, and taking out the trash. But, according to the timestamp on BART’s video, Zhang also appears to have disappeared inside a storage closet for hours at a time.

So he may very well be pencil-whipping BART, and if so, that’s obviously fraudulent…and hopefully criminal.
But the point still stands: if he was picking up that much overtime, and honestly working it, he deserved the money he earned…disparaging remarks from watchdog groups notwithstanding. And with a salary like that, he most certainly could achieved FI/ER—in a short time, to boot.

I had such a visceral reaction to Fellner’s quotes because the whole case reminded me of the job prejudice I picked up in, I guess, elementary school, which is when I first became aware of school custodians and fell into line with my peers’ snobbish opinions of them.
After all, when a kid yorked on the floor the janitors were the ones who had to spread sawdust over it and sweep it up. They cleaned the toilets and mopped out the bathrooms and dealt with the cafeteria after hundreds of kids had destroyed it. They picked up the cigarette butts and emptied the ashtrays from the teachers’ smoking area out behind the school (yes, yes…that dates me).
But these days janitors remind me of a quote from Martin Luther King, Jr.:

If a man is called to be a street sweeper, he should sweep streets even as Michelangelo painted, or Beethoven composed music or Shakespeare wrote poetry. He should sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say, “Here lived a great street sweeper who did his job well.”


Author: ER Dude

Sick of your job? After a thirteen-year career, Early Retirement Dude fled corporate America for good. You can do it too! Visit or email

One thought

  1. There are a heck of a lot of blue collar jobs that pay better than white collar smucks like me. Why aren’t more people HVAC techs in Texas? Technology may change a lot of things, but people are wimps and you’ll stay gainfully employed in an area that’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter!

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