Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2958
Introduction: Getting Ready
The idea for Nickel and Dimed is hatched when Barbara Ehrenreich lunches with Harper's editor Lewis Lapham. She suggests that somebody should investigate living on minimum wage from the inside: that is, actually living on a minimum wage and reporting the experience. Lapham agrees and says the person should be Ehrenreich herself. The assignment involves working at minimum-wage jobs for one month at a time to see if she can match her earnings to her expenses.
Ehrenreich has misgivings. She is from a working-class background and has no desire to return to her roots. People around her suggest that she can recreate the situation of minimum wage without going through the actual hardships. However, she finally agrees to the assignment by imagining it as a scientific experiment. In this spirit, she sets up ground rules: first, she cannot rely on skills derived from her education or her work as a writer; second, she must take the highest paying job possible and actually work; and third, she must find the cheapest living conditions for herself. In retrospect, she admits these rules were not always observed. Ehrenreich sets up other parameters as well: she will always have a car, will never go homeless, and will not go hungry.
Ehrenreich acknowledges that she is different from many of the people she will be working with. She is financially comfortable and can walk away from her experiment if she wants. She is white and a native English speaker. She has a car. As for whether the people she deals with can tell she is different than they are, Ehrenreich confesses that the opposite was closer to the truth. Her lack of experience means she is less skilled in many situations. She does not merely pose as a minimum-wage worker; for a period of time, she is, in fact, a minimum-wage worker. The nature of every job she takes, each of which involves some form of physical labor, means that doing the job is never pretend. This fact is brought home by the anticlimactic responses from co-workers when she tells them she is really a writer.
Ehrenreich makes no claim for the typicality of her experience; however, she stresses that hers was a best-case scenario and many others live in far worse situations.
One: Serving in Florida
Ehrenreich decides to stay close to home for her first experiment, looking for work in Key West, Florida. She begins by finding a place to live: staying in Key West is too expensive, so she finds an efficiency apartment thirty miles away. Next, she sets out to find work, filling out applications at various hotels and supermarkets. She aces a computerized exam for a Winn-Dixie supermarket but declines to take a drug test, feeling the pay Winn-Dixie offers is not worth the indignity. After three days of searching, she is hired as a waitress at the Hearthside family restaurant.
On the first day of the job, she is trained by another waitress, Gail, who fills her in on the complexities of both the restaurant's policies and her own life. As a waitress, Ehrenreich is driven by her work ethic and a growing attachment to the customers she serves. Unfortunately, her hopes for a steady month of working as a waitress are disrupted by two things.
First, the restaurant's management is perceived by the rest of the staff as serving corporate interests instead of customers. When a mandatory meeting is called, it is so the manager, Phillip, can complain about the messiness of the break room. Four days later, another meeting is called regarding a report of drug activity during the night shift. This necessitates drug tests for all future hires as well as random tests for current employees. The gossip among staff is that assistant manager, Stu, was the one caught with drugs.
Second, Ehrenreich realizes that, despite taking home tip money every night, she will not be able to cover expenses on her current income. Her first and most important concern is housing, and Ehrenreich explains the different problems her fellow Hearthside employees endure in that department. Some live with family or a mate; others live with multiple roommates; and still others live in their cars or rent hotel rooms on a nightly basis. This last choice seems unwise to Ehrenreich and she says this to Gail, who is considering leaving her roommate and moving into a room at the Days Inn. As Gail points out, however, she is not able to get an apartment of her own without a month's rent and deposit in advance—an impossibility on her income, and something Ehrenreich was able to manage only by starting her experiment with $1,300 in her pocket.
Ehrenreich seeks out a second job and ends up working as a waitress at Jerry's, a family restaurant attached to a motel chain. While much busier than the Hearthside, Jerry's is an unclean restaurant that lacks both a staff break room and proper facilities for employees to wash their hands. The one reprieve for employees seems to be smoking, as seen by constantly-lit cigarettes awaiting quick puffs between orders. Ehrenreich is hurt by the coldness of her fellow waitresses on her first day but discovers it is because most people do not last more than one day at this job.
Ehrenreich is determined to work at both the Hearthside and Jerry's but finds herself too exhausted to do so and chooses to stick with Jerry's. Work at Jerry's is tiring in itself, and Ehrenreich decides to handle each day as a onetime, shift-long emergency. Unfortunately, she must also deal with work-related pain, including an old back injury that has returned. When she briefly returns to her regular life, she finds herself increasingly disassociated from the "real" Barbara Ehrenreich and "that" Barbara's relatively lavish lifestyle.
Ehrenreich befriends some of the staff at Jerry's, including a young Czech dishwasher named George, whom she teaches English. Ehrenreich also decides to move to a trailer park closer to Key West in order to save time and gas, making a new second job possible. The situation at Jerry's worsens when George is accused of stealing from the dry-storage room. Ehrenreich does not speak up in his defense—a change in her personality that troubles her deeply.
She gets a second job housekeeping for the hotel attached to Jerry's. She is assigned to train with a woman named Carlie. Ehrenreich discovers the one solace in cleaning hotel rooms is watching television. She leaves her housekeeping job to wait tables at Jerry's, but the night goes badly. The cook, Jesus, is overwhelmed by the rush of orders, as is Ehrenreich when she deals with four tables arriving at once. She leaves the restaurant mid-shift and does not return. Her one regret is not giving George her tips.
Two: Scrubbing in Maine
For her next experiment, Ehrenreich chooses Maine: unlike other places, she can blend in as a minimum-wage worker despite not being a minority. She arrives on a Tuesday and books a room at a Motel 6. After some searching, she secures an apartment at the Blue Haven Motel, where she can move on Sunday.
She applies at various places for a job, including taking personality tests at both Wal-Mart and The Maids, a housecleaning service. Two days later, she gets two job offers: a weekend assignment as dietary aide at the Woodcrest Residential Facility nursing home and a weekday job at The Maids. She accepts both. She starts work at Woodcrest on Saturday and discovers that being a dietary aide involves serving meals and cleaning up afterwards. She befriends Pete, a cook, but decides to keep her distance when he seems romantically inclined toward her.
On Monday morning, Ehrenreich begins work at The Maids by watching a series of videotapes describing how to clean according to company policy. She is struck by the emphasis on creating an orderly appearance over actual cleanliness, as evidenced by the very small amount of water used when cleaning. The next day, she discovers work is much faster than depicted in the videos: a certain time is given per house, based on size and whether or not it is a first-timer needing special attention. Her co-workers do not have the same housing worries as those in Key West, but many are still at the edge of poverty.
On Friday, one of her team's assignments includes the home of Mrs. W, who ends up watching Ehrenreich as she cleans the kitchen floor on her hands and knees. Ehrenreich develops a rash but is not sure where it comes from; further, the aches and pains from her job take their toll. She makes observations on the physically damaging nature of maid work, as well as the ostentatious nature of the houses she must clean.
By the second week, Ehrenreich works regularly under team leader Holly. One day, when Holly seems ill, she confesses to Ehrenreich that she may be pregnant. Ehrenreich tries to assume more of the work to make things easier for Holly. Holly resists, though she does accept food. At one house, Ehrenreich has an accident while cleaning the kitchen, breaking a fishbowl and spilling water everywhere. Her first week's pay is held back as a matter of policy at The Maids, so she contacts several agencies to secure much-needed free groceries. That weekend, while working at the Woodcrest as a dietary aide, she has to handle the Alzheimer's ward by herself.
During Ehrenreich's third week with The Maids, Holly has an accident and injures her knee. Ehrenreich threatens a work stoppage and talks to her employer Ted about getting help for Holly, but neither Ted nor Holly will allow this. On the car ride back to the office, Ehrenreich loses her temper and embarrasses her co-workers by dismissing the Accutrac personality test's ability to screen out unfit workers. The next morning, Ted sends Holly home to recuperate. Two days later, Ted picks up Ehrenreich for a special assignment. On the drive there, he gives her a raise and talks about Holly's situation. Ehrenreich wonders why the other workers rely so heavily on Ted's praise and realizes he is the only person who will acknowledge their value.
On her last day at The Maids, she reveals to co-workers her real reason for working there. They do not seem to understand completely, but Ehrenreich takes the chance to ask how the women feel about their job and clients. The responses are not angry; they are either resigned to their lot in life or aspiring to the same lifestyle as those clients.
Three: Selling in Minnesota
Ehrenreich chooses Minneapolis for her last experiment, based on news of its robust job and housing markets. She initially stays at the apartment of friends who are away on a trip, in exchange for watching their pet cockatiel Budgie. Deciding to explore factory or retail work and become more aggressive with the application process, Ehrenreich succeeds in getting jobs at a Wal-Mart and a Menards housewares store. Unfortunately, both require a drug test, and Ehrenreich has recently smoked marijuana. She tries to detoxify by drinking a great deal of water and buying products designed to clear one's system.
Although her initial search for housing is discouraging, Ehrenreich takes time out to meet Carolina, a relative of a friend. Carolina has done in real life what Ehrenreich pretends to do with her experiments: relocated from one state to another to start a new life at minimum wage. Ehrenreich and Caroline bond and become friends. On Monday, Ehrenreich goes to her drug tests and, still unsure of the results, goes to a group interview for a company seeking independent sales staff. The search for affordable housing grows more desperate, but she is promised an apartment at the Hopkins Park Plaza when it opens up. Meanwhile, she reserves a room at the Twin Lakes, a residential hotel.
Menards contacts Ehrenreich and tells her to report for orientation on Wednesday morning. When she does, she is told she will be paid ten dollars an hour. Roberta from Wal-Mart contacts Ehrenreich to tell her she passed the drug test and will be paid seven dollars an hour. While Menards is the better choice, Ehrenreich attends Wal-Mart's orientation out of caution and curiosity. She finds the day-long process intimidating: the history and unmatched growth of Wal-Mart is conveyed along with the service-oriented philosophy, anti-union policy, and the importance of preventing time-theft, or doing anything non-work related during a shift.
Ehrenreich goes to her first day of work at Menards; she discovers she must work eleven-hour shifts and that ten dollars may not be her hourly pay rate after all. Ehrenreich refuses these conditions and opts for Wal-Mart, something she will rationalize in the coming weeks. She leaves her friends' apartment, but finds the Twin Lakes has rented her reserved room to someone else. This forces her to stay at the Clearview Inn for a week, which is cheaper than Twin Lakes but also less safe.
The following Monday, Ehrenreich reports for work at Wal-Mart and is assigned to the women's clothing department. Her task is to keep the area orderly, something that requires a familiarity with the department layout as well as the different brands and styles. While the task itself is not difficult, the volume of clothes to sort and order can be overwhelming. Her shift is changed in the second week from 10:00 a.m.-6:00 p.m. to the closing shift of 2:00 p.m.-11:00 p.m., and the shopping takes on a more frenzied pace. Though Ehrenreich resents customers, concentrating on the clothing gives her a sense of focus and dedication. An incident where a co-worker criticizes her performance has Ehrenreich worried that the person she is becoming under these work conditions is not the same person she is in real life.
On the day Ehrenreich believes she can move into the Hopkins Park Plaza, she is told she cannot move in until the following week. Again without a home, she stays at a Comfort Inn for two nights. She seeks housing advice from the Community Emergency Assistance Program, where she is simply told to live in a shelter until she can afford an apartment. The following Saturday at Wal-Mart, Ehrenreich makes a breakthrough and finds herself not needing to think so much in order to accomplish her tasks. This leaves her the time to wonder why people do such work in the first place. Ehrenreich now tries to change the opinions of her co-workers and galvanize them to change the company. She talks about the importance of a union to co-workers individually as well as at a staff meeting. Though Ehrenreich does not truly believe that a union is possible, she is given hope when she hears of a strike being held at several hotels. Ehrenreich commits time-theft to follow up on possible housing, but with no results. She decides to end her experiment prematurely and quit Wal-Mart. She tells her co-worker Melissa of this and of the book she is writing, and Melissa decides to quit as well. On her last break, she watches TV news about the hotel strike, and a co-worker in the break room suggests a union would be good for Wal-Mart as well.
Ehrenreich assesses how she did in the three experiments. She concludes that she did well at her jobs, stressing that there is no such thing as unskilled labor, as every job has specific demands and skill sets that must be learned. Her ability at work, however, is distinct from how she did in making ends meet; she believes she came closest in making earnings match expenses in Maine and was least sure of this goal in Minnesota.
Ehrenreich then examines the general social issues underlying her experiences. The constant problem of housing is caused by the rich competing with the poor for living space, with the rich inevitably coming out on top. And though market forces drive rent up, the same cannot be said for wages available to the lower class. While the legal minimum wage and actual wages earned have both risen for the lowest ten percent of workers, Ehrenreich believes it is not nearly enough. Employers will do anything to avoid raising wages, such as providing minor benefits that can be taken away more easily when costs tighten. Further, minimum-wage employees do not have the same resources as other workers to allow independent comparison of wages and job markets. Even if they did, their ability to change work situations is often restricted by outside concerns such as home environment, transportation, and second jobs. An innate desire to please management helps keep low-wage workers compliant; further, common infringement on civil liberties such as drug testing and searches of private property help to psychologically intimidate workers.
In effect, Ehrenreich argues that low-wage workers inhabit a world that is neither free nor democratic, despite the common idea of America as a land of choice and opportunity. In order to lead a secure and comfortable (but by no means extravagant) life, she estimates that a family of one adult and two children requires $30,000 a year. This is twice as much as low-wage workers actually earn. Ehrenreich concludes that the top twenty percent of American earners, which includes the professional-managerial class, exerts an unequal amount of power over America than the rest of the nation. They set the country's agenda, and they have decided to hide the plight of the working poor. In setting aside their own concerns for the concerns of the people they serve, Ehrenreich claims that the working poor "are in fact the major philanthropists of our society" and will someday resist this role. After the turmoil of this predicted revolt, everyone will be better off.