Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America
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Barbara Ehrenreich’s non-fiction bestseller, Nickel and Dimed, is the story of an essay writer who went undercover as a low wage worker to find out how non-skilled workers make ends meet. The experiment took place in Florida, Maine, and Minnesota, with the author finding a job and lodgings in each location. The experiment was to be held for one month in each location, working full time and living only off the amount of money earned in low-wage jobs. The goal was to determine whether or not the author could both live off the money earned and have enough money at the end of the month to pay the next month’s rent.
The first city chosen was Key West, Florida, due to the proximity to her home. Ehrenreich gets a job as a waitress in a diner-style restaurant, and finds a trailer to rent nearby. The income she receives from waiting tables is not enough to support her and to pay the next installment of rent, and Ehrenreich takes on a second job working as a hotel maid. The two jobs become too physically demanding for her to continue, and she vacates the maid position after one day. The waitress position becomes increasingly difficult as well, and Ehrenreich leaves the job before the month has been completed.
The second city chosen for the experiment was Portland, Maine. In this city, Ehrenreich found a job with The Maids, a residential housekeeping service. Knowing that it would likely take two jobs to meet her goals, she also took a job as a dietary aide in a nursing home. Her two jobs are staggered so that Ehrenreich works seven days a week. The housekeeping position proved to be physically demanding as well as low paying, and Ehrenreich also felt the job to be degrading. After one of the other maids in injured on the job, Ehrenreich demands that the younger maid stop working, and tries to halt the work of all the maids. Unsuccessful, Ehrenreich complains to the manager and wins a day off for the injured worker. As a dietary aide, Ehrenreich finds herself taking care of the entire Alzheimer’s ward by herself, afraid that by making a mistake she could harm her patients.
After leaving Maine, Ehrenreich travels to Minnesota, where she attempts to find both a job and an affordable place to live. Because of Minneapolis’ low apartment vacancy rate, she is unable to secure and apartment. She does quickly get hired by Wal-Mart as a “softlines” worker, putting errant clothing back on the racks. She finds a hotel to live in, but stays worried about the boltless door, and moves to a nicer hotel.
After leaving each job, Ehrenreich tells a few employees who have gained her trust that her reason for being in the job had only been to write a book about the experience. She is surprised that there is never a dramatic response to the confession, but the workers are caught up in their own low-wage situations and show little interest in her reasons for leaving.
All of the minor characters in the book had their names changed by the author to protect their privacy.
- Barbara Ehrenreich - As a non-fiction narrative, the author was the main character of the book, conceiving and carrying out the low-wage experiments. Ehrenreich kept her real name while applying for jobs, though she did not reveal her Ph.D. in biology, nor her background as a writer.
- B.J. - B.J. was a manager at the first job Ehrenreich took during the experiment, at a restaurant in Key West.
- George - George was a dishwasher in the Key West Restaurant. An immigrant from Czechoslovakia, George spoke little English and had trouble understanding the problems that were happening in the restaurant around him. He was eventually accused of stealing from the restaurant and fired without understanding the reason.
- Ted - Ted is the manager of The Maids, a housekeeping service in Maine that Ehrenreich joins. Ted attempts to get Ehrenreich to tell him about any employees who have been complaining about their jobs. Ehrenreich believes that many of the women working for The Maids are doing so to gain Ted’s approval.
- Holly - Holly is a maid who works with Ehrenreich in Maine. She discovers she is pregnant during the month Ehrenreich is there, and suffers from dizzy spells and nausea. During one house cleaning she twists her ankle and walks with a limp afterward.
- Marge - A maid from Maine who suffers from arthritis, Marge is regularly paired with Holly and Ehrenreich for house cleaning assignments.
- Melissa - An employee of a Wal-Mart in Minneapolis, Melissa works with Ehrenreich sorting clothing. She quits her job when Ehrenreich does, saying that she doesn’t want to work there without her.
- Howard - Howard is the assistant manager at the Minneapolis Wal-Mart. He conducts regular meetings for all employees in order to discuss emergency scenarios and to warn them not to talk to each other.
Introduction: Getting Ready
In the introduction, Ehrenreich describes her real life as a writer with a Ph.D. in biology and an upper middle class home and life. On the advice of Harper’s editor Lewis Lapham, Ehrenreich decides to take on an experiment to show the world what it’s really like to live as an unskilled, low-wage worker. To do this, she tries to survive in a variety of different settings, choosing three very different cities and finds a job and a place to live in each. She attempts to live only on the money she makes at whatever job she finds, though she makes the decision not to go hungry and to use a credit card if absolutely necessary. She brings enough money to get set up in an apartment or other dwelling, about $1,300. She attempts to find lodgings that she could sustain only with the money coming in from a job.
Chapter 1: Serving in Florida
The first site chosen for the experiment was Key West, Florida, as it was close to her home. Searching for a job and a place to live, she found a waitress position at a small restaurant, which she calls Jerry’s. The restaurant, like most of the places she works, is not revealed by its true name in her book, nor are the people she meets.
Worried about being too overqualified for the job, she then feels underqualified as the job is revealed as being difficult and physically demanding. Ehrenreich finds the manager, B.J., difficult to work with, contributing to her many problems on the job. Another is George, a Czech dishwasher in the country for one week and unable to speak more than a few sentences in English. Ehrenreich decides to use her free time while at work to teach George English. After management discovers that a few items have gone missing, George is a suspect in the theft. The stolen items are never revealed by management, and Ehrenreich is convinced that George is innocent. Upper management decides to fire George, but to allow him to work until the end of the week. George is unaware of the problem because of the language barrier, and Ehrenreich grows increasingly upset over the situation.
Combined with the problems with co-workers, Ehrenreich also has problems finding affordable housing. She finds a trailer to live in, and is satisfied that it is safe enough for her purposes, though she is unsure if she will be able to maintain it on her waitressing income. Ehrenreich decides to take on a second job, and the hotel that adjoins the restaurant is hiring housekeepers. Ehrenreich decides to take the second job, as it is the only way she will be able to stay in her trailer. After one day of completing both jobs, Ehrenreich quits the housekeeping position. She is also becoming increasingly upset about the situations going on at the restaurant. After a particularly difficult day, Ehrenreich decides she will be quitting soon, and will give her tips to George. But she quit before she expected to, as a slew of difficult customers convinced her to quit her job mid-shift and with no notice. She walked out forgetting to give George her tips, leaving her with feelings of guilt.
The waitressing position lasted only two weeks, instead of the planned four weeks, and Ehrenreich did not believe she would have been able to make the next months rent on the trailer had she stayed in either job.
Chapter 2: Scrubbing in Maine
Her next city of choice was Portland, Maine. In Maine, there are many weekly motels to choose from, and she finds one that is affordable and comfortable. She chose this location because of its mainly Caucasian demographics. She finds two jobs that she is able to keep at the same time- working as a maid for a housekeeping service during the week, and as a dietary aide in a nursing home on the weekends.
The nursing home job, consists mainly of feeding the residents of the nursing home and cleaning up the food items. After a short time on the job Ehrenreich is entrusted with feeding the entire Alzheimer's ward by herself. She surprised that with so little experience on the job she is given such a responsibility. Many of the patients are diabetic and the wrong desert could worsen their health. She remains nervous during this time but has pride in her work after her shift is completed.
But during that week, working for a housekeeping company gets more and more difficult for her, both physically and mentally. Ted, the boss, is strict with the women who work for him and keeps them to a rigid schedule that they must adhere to. The schedule makes it difficult for any of the women to have a lunch break, and a low wages means that most of them don't have lunch to bring. They spend most of their lunch breaks and picking up a few items, such as potato chips, at a local convenience store and eating it in the car.
There are two housekeepers that Ehrenreich works with often- Marge and Holly. Marge teaches Ehrenreich about the different pain medications that can help with the physical pain caused by performing the housekeeping duties. The job Ehrenreich finds the most difficult is vacuuming. The company has its own vacuum that is worn on the back like a backpack. Some of the older women are unable to vacuum because of the difficulty of wearing it so. Holly is a young woman who has been with the company's long enough to be the supervisor of Ehrenreich’s group. During one day of work she twists her ankle and is unable to walk without pain. She refuses to see a doctor but instead wants to finish their day's work. During the course of Ehrenreich’s month with the company, Holly finds out she is pregnant. The other women discover her condition because of her nausea and dizziness. She is vague when they ask her whether she is pregnant, not wanting to miss any work or to be treated differently. Ehrenreich calls for a work stoppage to protest Holly’s fear of missing work. But as no one else will join her in the stoppage, she eventually pitches in and cleans the house. After complaining to Ted, he gives Holly a day off to seek medical treatment. Upon leaving her housekeeping job, she reveals her true reason for having each job, and is not met with the surprise she had expected.
Chapter 3: Selling in Minnesota
In Minneapolis, Minnesota, Ehrenreich spends more time looking for a place to live than in the other cities. The vacancy rate in Minneapolis was less than 1%, and Ehrenreich was unable to find an apartment. Hotels renting by the week or month were also hard to come by. She decides to find what she can and keep looking later. The only affordable place she can find is a rundown motel with no bolts on the door and no screen on the window. She has trouble sleeping and she is worried about her safety and the safety of her belongings. She keeps her laptop computer locked in the trunk of her car rather than leave it at the hotel.
She is able to find a job at the local Wal-Mart. Her job is in ladies clothing, picking up dropped clothing and taking clothing from the dressing rooms and put them back on the racks. The job is extremely low paying and she is unable to afford much of anything outside her house in payment. She cannot buy any kitchen items and is unable to cook anything on her own, living instead on fast food that she can find nearby. Still unable to sleep because of the condition of her hotel room, she eventually finds a nicer room at an extended stay hotel with bolts on the door and he screened window. Her sleeping problems ceased and she feels much better during the day at work.
She finds her work at Wal-Mart repetitive and monotonous, and begins to believe that the employees are working part too hard for the wages they are given. She decides to try to plant the idea of the union into the other employee's minds. She begins discussing unions and what they could do for the employees.
Howard, the assistant manager, is a person Ehrenreich finds difficult work for and an enemy of the employees. His regular meetings seem pointless to her, and only feed into the monotony. The one bright spot of her days is Melissa, who works alongside her in ladies department. She and Melissa think up new jobs to do so that they can do them together. When Ehrenreich eventually leaves at the end of the month, Melissa decides to quit to rather than work at the Wal-Mart without her.
Chapter 4: Evaluation
The last chapter, the evaluation, begins with an analysis of how she actually performed at each job. She feels that her performance was good at each position, especially as each job took concentration and skills she didn't know she would need. She laments the lack of any encouragement or compliments from her coworkers on her performance, and decides she was average, but capable.
She also describes the unskilled jobs as being not only physically and mentally challenging, but a difficult place to work because of the employee politics that go on. She decides that had she continued in a few of the jobs, such as the one at Wal-Mart, she would have fared well and been eventually raised in position and pay.
The problem, Ehrenreich found, was that has he markets are increasingly becoming competitive. The rise of rents is greatly outstripping the rise in pay, especially for hourly workers. Low income housing is disappearing for many cities, forcing people to live further outside the city or to live three and four to an efficiency apartment. The labor shortage she had been expecting to drive up wages had no effect on the wages she was able to get. She found that employers used many tricks in order to keep wages low and employees coming back to keep their jobs. The drug tests required of many jobs, she believed, were mainly in force to denigrate the employees and force them to see themselves in a lowly position. The housekeeping company offered free breakfasts but would not raise their wages even as they repeatedly came up short handed. Most of the places where Ehrenreich worked had policies against the employees talking to each other in one capacity or another. This was thought to keep employees from airing any grievances or even attempting to organize against the management.
Because low-wage workers have very few options, little education, and transportation problems, they may be unable to find a better paying job even knowing that they exist. The problems that the people at the bottom 20% of the economy has are so many and so complex that changing their places in life is extremely difficult. Coming from the top 20%, Ehrenreich she found her needs met, mainly by low-wage workers.
The main way that wages are kept low is by reinforcing the low self-esteem portion she found inherent in each job. This included random drug tests, being yelled at by bosses, being accused of rule infractions, and being treated in many ways she felt was more like a child than a woman in her 50s should be treated.