Multinational Monitor

OCT 2001
VOL 22 No. 10


Payday Profiteers: Payday Lenders Target the Working Poor
by Kari Lydersen

Renting to Owe: Rent-to-Own Companies Prey on Low-Income Consumers
by Jake Lewis


The View from Below
How the U.S. Working Poor Don’t Get By
an interview with
Barbara Ehrenreich

Migrating from
Exploitation to Dignity
Immigrant Women Workers and the Struggle for Justice
an interview with
Miriam Ching Yoon Louie

The Community Development Credit Union Alternative
an interview with
Clifford Rosenthal


Behind the Lines

Wartime Opportunism

The Front
Easy on Sunday Morning - Poverty and Mental Health

The Lawrence Summers Memorial Award

Names In the News


The View from Below How the U.S. Working Poor Don't Get By

An interview with Barbara Ehrenreich

Barbara Ehrenreich is the author of a number of books, including Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, Blood Rites and The Worst Years of Our Lives. In Nickel and Dimed, she reports on her experiences trying to live on the income she earned while working at various entry-level jobs.

Multinational Monitor: What kind of groundrules did you impose upon yourself for the project that resulted in your book?

Barbara Ehrenreich: The idea was simply to see if I could make enough money to support myself as an entry-level worker. I tried this in three cities — Key West, Florida; Portland, Maine; and the Twin Cities area. I stayed for a month in each city. I tried my best to get the best-paying entry-level job I could, did my best at it and kept my expenses to an absolute minimum. All of those rules were broken or twisted in some way or another along the way, but that was the idea.

MM: In the book, housing emerges as a central concern.

Ehrenreich: Yes. If I had small children with me, I’m sure childcare would have loomed just as large, but as a single person, housing was an insuperable barrier.

In the Twin Cities area, I could find nothing affordable. I discovered there and in Portland, Maine that it’s the lucky people who can get into a trailer park. Trailers are high-rent. For example, it costs $625 a month to rent a one-person trailer in the area that serves the Key West hotel industry. In Maine and Minnesota, I didn’t find anything less than $800 a month.

I found that people ended up in residential hotels, which I guess are okay if you don’t mind living in one little room with a kitchenette. I’m speaking now of families –– for me that wasn’t a problem. But some of those places were appalling, and extremely expensive. Like the creepy one I lived in for a while in Minnesota, which charged $250 a week. That was more than I was earning. It was filthy and unsafe and didn’t have a kitchenette or even a microwave or a fridge.

MM: If you had stayed in these cities longer than a month, could you have found more permanent arrangements that would have been cheaper?

Ehrenreich: It could have gone either way. Staying longer in Minnesota would have meant homelessness. I had to give up –– there was nothing I could have done except go to a shelter. That was the only option. In Maine, the residential hotel was relatively inexpensive –– $120 a week, which is not so inexpensive when you think of what you’re getting. Since I had two jobs there, I might have been able to save enough to get the first month’s rent and deposit, to get a real apartment somewhere, if nothing had gone wrong –– if I hadn’t had an illness or had car problems, for example.

MM: Did your co-workers also have these kind of temporary housing arrangements?

Ehrenreich: Many did not, because they had been living in the region for some time, and had spouses or boyfriends or grown children who were also contributing to the family income. But there were certainly other people having those kinds of problems, even people who were homeless.

MM: How did housing arrangements limit your food alternatives?

Ehrenreich: That depends on the place. Even in the best places I lived in, a lot of my plans for economical cooking went down the drain, because I lacked the pots and pans and other things I normally take for granted that enable me to make cheap food in quantity and freeze it. If you have no kitchenette, no microwave and no refrigerator, you are left to eat in convenient stores and fast food places.

MM: What’s the cost of that?

Ehrenreich: The cost was alarming. I think I got it down so I could eat for about $9 a day. I’d get my breakfast items from a convenience store, and eat fast food for lunch and dinner. I suppose you could get cheaper than that, but that was the best I could do. As for nutritional choices, I made good choices. You eat a lot of hamburgers, though.

MM: Would you go hungry at times?

Ehrenreich: I didn’t eat snacks or other things that I might have ordinarily. But no, one of the things I resolved at the beginning of the project was that I would not let myself become homeless or go hungry. There are limits to my dedication as a journalist.

MM: What was the range of jobs that you did during this stint?

Ehrenreich: I was a waitress, a hotel housekeeper, a maid with a big corporate house-cleaning service, a nursing home aide and a Wal-Mart clerk. They were all entry-level jobs. A lot of my skills were out of date. For example, my experience in waitressing was out of date. A lot of things have changed. When I first waitressed, they didn’t have computerized ordering systems. Now they do almost everywhere.

I had to struggle to learn every job. It wasn’t easy. I was prepared to work hard physically, but I was not prepared for how much I had to struggle to learn these jobs.

In some it was quite overwhelming, like the Wal-Mart job. I was in ladies wear. It’s a very hard job, because that’s where things are constantly taken off the shelves and racks and tried on or just dumped on the floor. My job was to constantly return them to their exact places, by size, color, style, etc. That meant memorizing the exact location of hundreds of items. I can’t describe to you how difficult that was. The Jordache clam-diggers with the embroidered fringe –– where do they go? Hundreds of items like that. Every few days those items would be rotated around to new locations because that’s part of retailing. You don’t have everything in the same location, because customers return and they want to be surprised.

So there was not a lot of daydreaming time in these jobs. It was all hard. That’s why I no longer use the word “unskilled” to describe any job.

MM: None of the jobs you did were construction work, but you encountered real physical challenges and potential for injury.

Ehrenreich: The worst job physically was the house-cleaning job. Corporate housecleaning services like Merry Maids use a highly-Taylorized approach to house-cleaning. You work in a team. The work is divided up. The exact way you proceed through a room is specified and taught to you in training videos. The problem was that you were under such great time pressure. We had only so many minutes to clean a house, according to its size. We had to stay within that time –– as little as 45 minutes. So we were really running. We literally ran from the company car carrying our buckets and vacuum cleaner and everything, and ran back out, and did not pause for a second when we were in the house.

At first, I was pretty proud of myself for keeping up with everyone else. A lot of them were a lot younger than me. I could carry the buckets and the backpack vacuum cleaner. But then I began to realize that I shouldn’t be so proud, because the only reason I was so strong and in such good shape was because I hadn’t done it for long. Even women who had been doing it for a few months had some sort of injury –– back or knee or repetitive stress injuries, such as in their scrubbing arms.

MM: How did the employers respond to injuries?

Ehrenreich: The boss was horrible. He lectured us. We would have these little meetings in the morning before we took off. These meetings were rather irritating, because we weren’t paid to be at them. He got about a half-hour of free time from us by making us show up at 7:30 a.m., although we didn’t leave to start cleaning until 8:00.

During that time, he’d lecture us on themes like, “working through it.” Don’t call in with a migraine. Take a couple of Excedrin. Whatever it is, you could work through it. That was one place where I broke my rule about always being a good and obedient and cheerful worker. I blew up at this boss. He was saying this to a young woman who had really hurt herself on the job.

MM: How did the employees respond when they were injured?

Ehrenreich: When this girl hurt herself, she started crying. She was in a lot of pain and couldn’t put her weight on her ankle.

I said, “We’ve got to get you to an emergency room. This is ridiculous, we can’t go on to the next house.” The other two women on the team looked at me blankly.

The one who was hurt was ambivalent. She was a team leader that day. She really wanted to work. She couldn’t afford to lose a few hours of work. She would not be paid if we had gone to get medical help. The other question that hadn’t entered my middle-class mind was who would pay if we went to an emergency room. I think that question was very much on her mind.

I lost the argument entirely, and she ended up hopping around on one foot cleaning some rich person’s bathrooms. I felt as helpless as I have ever felt in my life. I knew this was wrong. I tried all kinds of things. I told her to let me do her work for the day and sit down. She refused. She couldn’t afford the time off, and she was under pressure from her husband not to take time off.

MM: Who would have paid for medical coverage? What kind of insurance was available at the jobs you had?

Ehrenreich: There was health insurance available at almost all these jobs, but most of the people I talked to didn’t bother taking it because the employee contribution was too high. If you’re only making a thousand dollars a month, you don’t have a hundred dollars or $150 to put into health insurance.

MM: One of the interesting themes in the book is the concept of time. Leaving aside the time on the job, how much time do the people in entry-level positions have to do what they want with the rest of their lives?

Ehrenreich: I think a lot of people don’t just work 40 hours a week. I met so many people working more than one job that I really can’t believe what the Bureau of Labor Statistics says –– that only 6 percent of Americans work more than one job. I must have met all of them. So one big problem is that many have to work more than one job.

My life was a little odd. If I was working an eight or nine-hour shift, I still had to go home and make my notes for the day on my laptop.

Other people very frequently went home to children that needed attention, or to their own houses that needed cleaning, that sort of thing.

I didn’t get a sense that people had a lot of leisure time. Just from conversations with people, very few were talking about fun things they did on the weekend. Movies were not mentioned. Weirdly enough, not even television was mentioned. Shopping was certainly not a recreational activity.

MM: What about the issue of time on the job, and the struggle for control over time between employees and employers?

Ehrenreich: The more highly-organized employers like Wal-Mart are watching your time down to an interval that’s probably less than a minute. They warn you in the beginning during your orientation about “time theft” — meaning time when you’re doing anything other than working. That includes going to the bathroom during your time on the floor.

My typical shift was nine hours. There was a one-hour dinner break, because this was an evening shift, and two 10-minute breaks –– one before and one after the dinner break. You had to walk all the way to the back of the store and punch out on the time clock for your 10-minute break. Then you had to punch back in. They were watching that closely. I actually engaged in time theft, in that I would go to the ladies room on my way to punch out. I don’t know what problems would have ensued if I had been detected.

That ten minutes was a big deal. For a lot of people, that was time to call home and see how the kids were doing. They had pay phones in the back of the store, and people had to hope that one would be free.

I had a very strong desire to get out of doors. Nine hours is a long time to spend in a fluorescent-lit, stale-air atmosphere.

You couldn’t just stand in front of the store. They had a fenced-off area that the smokers could go to. You could sit back there –– there was a picnic table and so on. It was very important to be able to sit down. You had been on your feet for hours. I even begrudged the 75 seconds that it took me to walk outside from where I punched out. I wanted to be outdoors and off my feet. I needed to drink something. You don’t even drink water when you’re working. Sometimes I needed a snack to keep going. So you had all these things you had to do in your 10 minutes. That was also my big occasion to talk with people from other departments, which was important and interesting to me as a journalist, because break-time is the only time to talk.

MM: What were your relationships like with your supervisors?

Ehrenreich: Varied. I liked my immediate supervisor at Wal-Mart very much. She was a middle-aged lady, not authoritarian. She had a lot of good ideas about how to improve our department –– none of which were ever acted upon, because she had no authority herself. She was fine.

But the person above her was an asshole. He was a guy in his mid-twenties who delighted in exerting his authority. He was constantly calling us together for absolutely useless meetings. A lot of employees wouldn’t even bother going, even though it was said to be mandatory. People would just sneer, “Okay you can go, Barb, if you want to go.” The meetings were to give some kind of lecture or remind us of some rule.

In the restaurants, there were good supervisors who were not paid a lot themselves –– maybe $20,000 a year. Some of them work very hard and understand that their role is to pitch in if we were short-handed. A manager at a restaurant should be able to cook or serve or do many other things if necessary to provide backup.

Others didn’t see themselves that way and thought that their role was to sit in a booth with their feet up and watch us. Some of them were rude and harassing and abusive. I remember one manager who put her face right up to mine and yelled at me about how I wasn’t being fast enough and I was talking to the customers too much. She was also really rude to the immigrant dishwashers.

MM: At Wal-Mart what did you find out about the “Wal-Mart family?”

Ehrenreich: They give you an eight-hour orientation, which is an incredible investment of their money, because you’re paid eight hours to sit around and absorb this company propaganda.

It’s very cult-like. There’s a lot of talk about how this is one big family and how important you, the associate, are. There are lots of messages from beyond the grave of Sam Walton preserved in videotape, who exhorted us to new peaks of retail enthusiasm.

A lot of emphasis is put on smiling and going up to customers and speaking to them, which I found on day one you don’t do, because you don’t have the time. Also, the customers get annoyed if you do it.

MM: But generally, you didn’t find that employees internalized the idea of family?

Ehrenreich: My sense at Wal-Mart from talking with people during breaks was that they did their jobs very well. With few exceptions, they took their jobs seriously. But they sort of shrugged off the company culture. Or they were openly cynical about it. For example, there was a Wal-Mart rule that you couldn’t say curse words –– like “damn,” “hell,” etc. You got fired for that. But people would take great pleasure in muttering “shit,” now and then.

MM: At Wal-Mart and some of the other employers you encountered drug testing and personality tests. What was the purpose of that?

Ehrenreich: I think the drug tests are meaningless. The only drug they’re likely to detect is marijuana, which is the most innocuous of the illegal drugs. The others –– cocaine and heroin –– go through people’s bodies really fast, so there are unlikely to be traces. They don’t bother testing for alcohol, LSD, ecstasy, etc. So they’re only going to get this one drug. If you smoked a joint three weeks ago, you could have a positive test and not be hired, and yet be the most wonderful worker in the world. So the test has nothing to do with productivity or prevention of accidents or anything.

The personality tests are a joke. Anybody who was both literate and reasonably hypocritical could pass them. A question you encounter again and again, for example, is the proposition, “In the last year I have stolen (check dollar amount below) worth of goods from my employers.” Nobody’s going to put down $55 or whatever.

My theory is that the purpose of these tests is to send a message to the worker that “Look, we own you, we control you, you’ll have no secrets from us.”

MM: To what extent are people working in support of each other or in solidarity, and to what extent do they work against each other?

Ehrenreich: As I quickly learned in each of these situations, there’s a kind of structural solidarity in most jobs. You do depend on other people. I certainly did.

One of the things that made me work harder than I might have otherwise was the fear of letting down the people I was working with. If you don’t hold up your end, someone else was going to have to do it, and that puts a lot of psychological pressure on you to do your best.

I saw examples of solidarity in small ways –– people looking out for each other, warning each other about the particular manager on duty, or covering for each other when someone wanted to sneak off for a bathroom break.

I was also disappointed at times. In that confrontation I had with the housecleaning boss, my two other co-workers didn’t seem to be behind me in doing something for the woman who was hurt. They just kind of were ready to go back to work. What is that about? It could be some kind of regional cultural thing about rural white people in Maine. I don’t know. But on the whole, apart from the fact that there are intimate frictions that develop on any job, you know that you depend on each other. That kind of built-in solidarity could be the basis for confronting management and demanding a better break.

MM: Everything would seem to point to the interests of these workers in joining together formally in unions, or at least informally to stand up to some of the abuses you experienced. But it doesn’t seem to happen. What is the explanation for that?

Ehrenreich: The thing that became absolutely clear to me is that the workplace is a totalitarian setting. It’s an atmosphere of fear. You can be fired at will in the American workplace, unless it is unionized or you have a contract. You can be fired because you have a funny look on your face. You can certainly be fired for being a troublemaker and, although it’s completely illegal, people are fired all the time for union activity. I read that the AFL-CIO estimates 10,000 people are fired or punished in some way each year for union activity. I’ve since been told that that’s a gross underestimate, that it could be several times that. So it’s fear.

I always thought that these jobs weren’t worth taking any abuse — that you could walk down the street and get another, which was certainly true between 1998 and 2000 when I was doing this. But although these jobs don’t pay much, what I came to appreciate is that to change jobs is to lose at least two weeks pay. That could be a crippling blow.

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