B.J. is a manager at Jerry's restaurant, where Ehrenreich holds her second waitressing job. She has a blunt, thoughtless demeanor. She advises Ehrenreich that interaction with customers is slowing her down and that customers must be treated as a sort of enemy to getting the job done.
Though its owners gave the bird a different name, Ehrenreich gave the name Budgie to the cockatiel she must watch in return for temporary housing in Minnesota.
Carlie is a housekeeper at the hotel attached to Jerry's restaurant. She trains Ehrenreich to be a housekeeper after the author takes on a second job to make ends meet. An older African American woman, Carlie is resigned to her job and seeks solace in the television shows she watches while cleaning the rooms.
Carolina is the aunt of a friend of Ehrenreich's who had done what Ehrenreich is attempting with her move to Minnesota: Carolina actually moved across the country to start a new life. She boarded a Greyhound bus with her two small children and left New York for Florida, all on a minimum-wage salary. She is the only worker whose home life Ehrenreich describes in detail.
Colleen is a cleaner for The Maids. She states that she is not jealous of her clients' lifestyles but wishes her own life was slightly easier.
The author and narrator, Ehrenreich is also the central character in the book: the journalist conducting experiments on survival through minimum-wage employment. She is the only character to appear in more than one chapter, since each chapter takes place in a different city and work situation. Ehrenreich is a staunch supporter of progressive left, or liberal, values; she believes in fixing inequities in American society that harm groups such as women and the lower class, even if these remedies compromise unregulated capitalism and democracy. While her background in science makes her approach her investigations as experiments, there are other motivations behind her actions worth noting. She is curious about her own ability to survive and also wishes to illustrate how difficult it is to live under minimum-wage conditions. Due to the nature of her experiment and the changes in her personality from the work and living conditions, the character of Barbara Ehrenreich is at times quite different from the narrator in her beliefs and perspective. For example, the Ehrenreich in the experiment is afraid of tunnel vision regarding her work—something the narrator Ehrenreich notes but does not herself suffer.
Gail is a waitress at the Hearthside restaurant whom Ehrenreich befriends. She, along with most of her co-workers, has difficulties finding acceptable housing; this limits her ability to secure a better job. When Ehrenreich leaves Key West, she turns over to Gail her deposit and house key to the trailer she had been renting.
George is a nineteen-year-old Czech dishwasher at Jerry's restaurant whom Ehrenreich befriends and teaches English. When he is accused of stealing from a dry-storage room, Ehrenreich does not come to his defense.
Holly is a team leader for The Maids. She is pregnant and sick but refuses to stop working. Her refusal to give in to illness or weakness comes from several factors: fear of the consequences if she does not work, financial need, pride in the work that she does, and a desire to please her employer, Ted.
An assistant manager at Wal-Mart, Howard is an enforcer of company policies and an example of the way corporations implicitly encourage the intimidation of employees.
A young, inexperienced cook at Jerry's restaurant, Jesus' failure to keep up with incoming orders reinforces Ehrenreich's decision to leave her job mid-shift.
Joy is a manager at Jerry's restaurant whose abrasive treatment of employees contributes to Ehrenreich leaving the job in the middle of a shift.
Lapham is Ehrenreich's editor at Harper's magazine. He is the one who takes her idea for a story about somebody trying to...
(The entire section is 1,104 words.)