On the Job: Working For A Low-Wage

Searing pain shooting up the back of the leg from hours of standing; the ever constant lower backache that no amount of ibuprofen seems to cure; dizziness and fatigue from lack of food and water because the service floor is too busy for a break – these were the physicalities endured during my time working low-wage jobs as a server and a Wal-Mart associate.  Reading Barbra Ehrenreich’s book Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America both confirmed my own observation regarding low-wage labor and also shed light on the lives some of my co-workers may have faced.

The premise of Ehrenreich’s experiment was to see if it she could survive for a month on low-wage earnings.  She repeats her experiment three times in different locations within the United States – first in Key West, Florida as a waitress, then Portland, Maine working for a maid service; third in Minneapolis, Minnesota as a Wal-Mart associate.nickel-and-dimed

“When I wake up at 4 A.M. in my own cold sweat, I am not thinking about the writing deadlines I’m neglecting; I’m thinking of the table where I screwed up the order and one of the kids didn’t get his kiddie meal until the rest of the family had moved on to their Key lime pies.” [1]

Ehrenreich’s surprise at how much she cared about the job and how much she came to care about the people she met at these jobs carries through each of her experiences.  The relationships she builds with her co-workers reflect the inter-dependency that exists among the employees which I myself experienced.  While working at Wal-Mart, her description of how the fitting room attendant could make life difficult for her by simply putting wrong items into her carts highlights the way a small problem can become a time consuming endeavor to fix.  But there is also trust that builds between the co-workers – knowing that when you are having a particularly rough day, there is someone there to help, as the women at The Maids showed repeatedly.

“In my interview, I had been promised a thirty-minuet lunch break, but this turns out to be a five-minuet pit stop at a convenience store, if that.” [2]

In Ehrenreich’s time as a server, a maid, and a Wal-Mart associate, she conveys the physical and mental exhaustion that ensues within each job. Breaks become a luxury not everyone receives as the quote above suggests.  While waitressing at Jerry’s, she makes clear the lack of break room and breaks for employees.  In my own time as a server lunch breaks were only viable if you had no tables, often times eating habits consisted of running into the kitchen to deposit dirty dishes followed by a quick stop in the break room to grab a bit from a sandwich, promptly followed by running back out the door to deliver food, refill coffee, or other tasks that require attention.  Breaks became a matter of calculation for Ehrenreich. At Wal-Mart, she struggled to determine the best way in which to use them to combat the weariness that sets in at the end of her nine-hour shifts.

Nickel and Dimed proved the extreme difficulties many American’s who work in low-wage jobs faced on a daily basis.  While Ehrenreich’s experiences are a compelling at times, it is the stories of numerous individuals whom she encountered and met that truly express the realities of this working class. For Ehrenreich there was always an out after 30 days, but for her co-workers the struggle to get by never stop.

“… for servers, slow times can be as exhausting as rushes.  You start dragging out each little chore because if the manager on duty catches you in an idle moment he will give you something far nastier to do.” [3]

[1] Barbra Ehrenreich, Nickel and Dimed: On (NOT) Getting By In America, Kindle Edition, (New York, Henry Holt and Company: 2001), 18.

[2] Ibid., 76.

[3] Ibid., 22.

8 thoughts on “On the Job: Working For A Low-Wage

  1. Reading this also made me think my own experiences with minimum wage work. Luckily it was just a summer job, but I could never have actually lived off of the money I made. It was just extra spending money for when I went back to school. I worked for a movie theater chain that understood that most of its employees were high school and college students, so they paid us very little and gave privileges like free movie tickets and popcorn that would mean nothing to real adults. They told us that we were the face of the company, but they clearly did not value our labor. I remember being told to always upsell customers (or “guests”) when working at concession, but there were absolutely no incentives to do so other than the occasional meaningless contest. I’d still get minimum wage no matter what I did.

    I cannot relate to someone who has to live off of the minimum wage, but I understand how frustrating it is to not have your labor valued.

  2. This book was difficult for me to read. I started in the workforce when I was 13. I’ve worked food service jobs, retail, and administration. The hardest part about the job for me, like Barb, was that I cared. To this day I think about the group of kids that came to my place expecting a continental breakfast to be eggs, bacon, and toast when what they got were pastries and coffee.

  3. This is the second time I’ve read Nickeled and Dimed, and again, I came away feeling like everyone should have a better understanding of low-wage service industry work. Most of us do – though many of us are lucky enough that such work is only temporary – but I have to admit, I get a bit resentful of people who have never had to waitress, or work retail, or clean houses. At the very least, it’s a lesson in empathy that we should all experience.

  4. The book was really hard for me to read as well. I know people who live these lives; they’re family and friends. It’s odd to read about someone studying them from a journalistic perspective; who had to “go undercover” to experience something that is so everyday for so many of us.

  5. I was amazed at how blatantly so many of the companies Ehrenreich worked for exploited their employees and then manipulated them into thinking that that kind of treatment was standard and acceptable. The companies wanted blind loyalty from their workers but really could not care less about them as human beings.

  6. Having spent a 9 years in retail, starting as a sales associate, moving to middle management, then to loss prevention, I heard stories like the ones Ehrenreich describes all the time. Luckily, I worked in a large, family-owned chain, but as I left the place felt less like a family-owned business and more like a corporation. The personal touches I once knew and grew accustomed to – as did my fellow co-workers – disappeared to increase the bottom-line.

  7. I appreciate Ehrenreich’s work. I was shocked to read some of the details of her experiences working for corporations. Her first hand account was eye opening to me, because I was not at all aware of the abuse that took place within such companies.

  8. I too have worked my fair share of minimum wage jobs, but reading this book just highlighted what colin already said – that we have an out. I was a 16 year old working with 30,40,50 something year olds who were working to put their children through college – I was working to have cash to go to the movies! So, comparing my minimum wage job to stories in this book is something I do not feel right doing, I had an out, a nice home to go to, and a car to cruise around in, and the average low-income worker does not have this same out.

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