Barbara Ehrenreich used her book Nickel and Dimed to illustrate her job assignment to live in the shoes of and, write about her experiences as a minimum wage worker in America. Ehrenreich goes to live in Key West, Maine, and Minnesota and works low wage jobs, sometimes more than one at a time. The point Ehrenreich is trying to make is that it is almost impossible to live a decent life in America with one, let alone two jobs paying very low wages. It is tough to be a low wage worker in America. Ehrenreich begins her experiment in Key West, Florida, where she finds an efficiency apartment for $500 a month.
Ehrenreich will work at the Hearthside as a waitress for two weeks from 2:00pm until 10:00 at night for $2. 43 an hour, plus tips. At the end of the tourist season all the tip she is left with is a “minimum wage total of $5. 15 per hour” (Ehrenreich 28). Not realizing then that on such wages, $500 a month for an apartment is too expensive to live comfortably. Ehrenreich gives examples of her co-workers living situations. Gail lives in an apartment where she shares rent, “her rent would be impossible alone” (Ehrenreich 25). Ehrenreich moves into a trailer closer to Key West. …housing in almost every case, is the principle source of disruption in [my co-workers lives]” (Ehrenreich 25). Essentially starting conditions are everything, “in poverty” (Ehrenreich 27). To make things a little more difficult, she finds out that instead of there being help for the poor, there are only more hidden fees. “There are no secret economies that nourish the poor; on the contrary, there are a host of special costs” (Ehrenreich 27). The restaurant where Ehrenreich works has a health plan service that “kicks in” after three months, leaving the employee uninsured and having to pay full costs on his or her medication.
Health situations, as described by Ehrenreich are already dwindling with regards to the excessive work schedule without breaks. Working in Maine, Ehrenreich sees that while working as a Maid, there are no such things as water breaks, and there is absolutely no eating or drinking on the job, which in most cases lasts seven to eight hours. In Ehrenreich’s case, she starts popping drugstore-brand ibuprofens and vitamin-C just to not “hurt. ” Ehrenreich goes to Maine and works for Merry Maids for 40 hours a week. Ted doesn’t have much sympathy for illness” (87) which means that the workers are required to “work through it,” regardless of how they are feeling. She argues that this kind of work is required or else the bosses will find someone “more qualifying” to do the job. The low wage workers are treated very unfairly. Ehrenreich explains that at Merry Maids there is, “no drinking, eating, or gum chewing in a house. No cursing in a house, even if the owner is not present…” (Ehrenreich 71). Many workers end up being in severe shape, this includes with back problems, skin rashes (in Ehrenreich’s case), chronic migraines, and so forth.
They are generally very malnourished from the lack of breaks and proper food intake as well, when the workers usually resort to fast food or food vouchers. Ehrenreich ends up having a food voucher, “one box of spaghetti noodles, one jar of spaghetti sauce, one can of vegetables, one can of baked beans, one pound of hamburger, a box of Hamburger Helper…” (103), there aren’t any vegetables or anything remotely nutritious as part of the care package. Ehrenreich makes the task of simply going to the grocery store seem too expensive for a low wage worker to afford regular fruits and vegetables. What I would like to do is to be able to take a day off now and then…. if I had to…and still be able to buy groceries the next day” (119). Ehrenreich chooses Minnesota at whim. After some internet-based research, she is convinced that there will be a comfortable correspondence between rent and wages. She decides she wants to work for retail, and applies to Wal-Mart. After the process of applying which includes a survey and a drug test, she is later hired for $7 per hour. Working at Wal-Mart makes Ehrenreich realizes there isn’t much human interaction in retail. “I could be a deaf-mute as far as most of this goes” (Ehrenreich157).
There are also the people in the store who tend to make work a living hell and can turn regular chipper people into angry, cranky pushovers. “Once I stand and watch helplessly while some rug rat pulls everything he can reach off the racks, and the thought that abortion is wasted on the unborn must show on my face, because his mother finally tells him to stop” (165). In many cases the “smiley” greeters who welcome people into the store, are very unhappy and think unkind thoughts about everyone who comes to visit the store, “I even start hating the customers for extraneous reasons…” (165).
This sudden change in character can be strenuous on a worker, regardless of their personality. Resenting the people who workers work for isn’t a healthy trait. “ ‘Aggressive hospitality’ gives way to aggressive hostility” (165). Ehrenreich comes to the realization that she has to purchase polo’s to work at Wal-Mart. Sadly all the polo’s are $7, which is her salary per hour, “there’s something wrong when you’re not paid enough to buy a Wal-Mart shirt, a clearanced Wal-Mart shirt with a stain on it” (Ehrenreich 181).
In many low waged jobs, this is the case. The Companies who hire new employees require them to buy clothes before being able to work there. At Abercrombie and Fitch, also a low paying job, the employees are required to wear “in season” clothing, which changes every two to three months. A normal low wage employee is unable to afford such request of spending $70-$80 on new clothes and still be able to pay electric bills, groceries, and other more important necessities. It is as simple as Ehrenreich states, “I am spending $49. 5 for the privelage of putting clothes away at Wal-Mart” (185). Her co-worker also understands, that for all the hard work that is done, “she’s been thinking about it, and $7 an hour isn’t enough for how hard we work after all” (190). Ehrenreich simply puts it, “if I could have afforded to work at Wal-Mart a little longer” (191), then she feels she could have done something far more productive with her time, while saving the money instead of putting it back into the employers pocket.
Nickel and Dimed is a very insightful book about how a woman of the upper middle class with a well paying job goes into near poverty, working several low waged jobs for an investigation about living in America the harsh way. She comes to the conclusion it is physically and mentally exhausting and nearly impossible to live a decent and healthy life working excruciating jobs, with long intensive hours, for a low wage pay.