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...
(The entire section is 2,958 words.)