Barbara Ehrenreich begins her low-wage experiment near where she lives
in Key, West Florida. One of her major fears is that she will be recognized
by one of the locals, and she will have to explain her investigation of
the working poor. She starts out with an allotment of $1,300 that she
uses to pay for the first two month’s rent on an efficiency apartment.
As her job search begins, she realizes that there is no relationship between
the number of ads and the number of jobs available. In the low-wage job
market, the turnover is so high that major hotel and restaurant chains
always keep the help wanted ads running.
One of the author’s first experiences with a job search was when
she applied to the Winn-Dixie, and had to take a computerized interview.
The test asked what dollar amount of stolen goods had the prospective
employee purchased in the last year, or would he or she turn in a fellow
employee for stealing. The final question in the computer interview was,
“Are you an honest person?”
Most application procedures involve drug testing. Marijuana is the one
drug that is most likely to be picked up because it stays in the body
for weeks after it has been ingested. Heroine and cocaine are also tested
for. Strangely, alcohol is not. Barbara Ehrenreich passes the computerized
part of the interview and is asked to take a drug test. At that point,
she is humiliated enough that for $6 and change per hour, she declines.
The job that Barbara does accept is at the Hearthside restaurant. She
will be making $2.15 per hour plus tips. Gail is the waitress who trains
Barbara. She is a woman in her 40’s who has been homeless and has
had to sleep in her truck. Recently, Gail’s boyfriend was killed
in prison. Joan is another waitress at the Hearthside that Barbara admires.
She is raising three children in a mobile home by herself. There is a
tremendous generosity that these women have that goes unnoticed. It consists
of the extra croutons in the salad when management only allows six, or
the extra rolls when management allows only one. Barbara begins to have
the same caring and generous attitude toward the customers as the other
waitresses. Looking out for her clientele and giving them the best dining
experience she can becomes kind of a narcotic.
One day while wrapping silverware, Gail tells Barbara that she is thinking
of taking a room at the Days Inn for $40 to $60 per day, and Barbara asks
her why she doesn’t get an apartment. The problem is that Gail can’t
afford the two month’s down payment in rent it would take to get
an apartment. This is one of the lessons of the low-wage world. There
are unplanned expenses that can decimate a person's finances.
At many establishments, employees have to provide parts of their uniforms
like shoes and pants. These expenses are a hardship for the low-wage worker.
Also, many workers do not get regular health care because they have to
wait for a plan to kick in. Prescriptions sometimes don’t get filled
because the medicine is too expensive. More severe expenses could include
Barbara, on the money she makes at the Hearthside, simply cannot pay her
rent, so she decides to get another job. She leaves the Hearthside after
she is caught having a cup of clam chowder. The author tries to get work
in housekeeping but because she is a white, native English speaker she
is typecast as a waitress. She gets a job at a restaurant called Jerry’s.
The customer volume is a lot higher, and the pace is intense. There is
no break room because there is no time for breaks. Large waves of people
come in the restaurant and keep up to six waitresses moving at top speed.
Many new waitresses don’t last more than a day. Our author does
pretty well under the pressure but realizes it will be a challenge to
be accepted by this sisterhood of waitresses. Barbara describes how hard
and how fast she has to work at Jerry’s:
Forget that you will have to do this again tomorrow, forget that you
will have to be alert enough to dodge the drunks on the drive home tonight----just
burn, burn, burn! Ideally, at some point you enter into what servers call
a “rhythm” and psychologists term a “flow state,”
where signals pass directly from the sense organs to the muscles, bypassing
the cerebral cortex, and a Zen-like emptiness sets in (33).
Barbara makes friends with a Czechoslovakian dishwasher named George,
to whom she tries to teach some English. George is not paid by the restaurant,
but by an agent who funded his trip to America. The Agent pays George
$5 dollars an hour and keeps the amount he makes over that at the restaurant.
George’s living conditions are also very meager. He lives in room
with a lot of other Czech dishwashers, and sleeps in a bed that is vacated
when one goes to work on an alternate shift. While Barbara works at Jerry’s,
George is accused of stealing, and instead of sticking up for her friend,
Barbara doesn’t say anything in his defense. Barbara knows that
George wouldn’t even filch a cigarette from another employee, but
she still doesn’t do anything to defend him. The author blames her
silence on the same phenomenon that happens in POW camps where brave people
lose their courage, and she wonders if this cowardly phenomenon is what
happens to a lot of people in low-wage jobs. She is genuinely ashamed
While at Jerry’s, she takes another job in the hotel next door as
a maid. The are two types of rooms that have to be made up: stayovers
and checkouts. Checkouts are considerably more work because everything
has to be stripped down. Carla experiences considerable joint pain while
she works, and her lunch is a bag of hot dog rolls. Everyone tells Barbara
that no one has been able to work at Jerry’s and hold down another
job at the same time.
That night at Jerry’s, a bad combination of events takes place.
The tables fill up and there is a difficult group of English tourists
that decide to order almost everything on the menu. The new cook starts
to get overwhelmed and the tourists start to send food back when the appetizers
come with the main courses. The manager throws a fit, and Barbara walks
off the job.