Published on Thursday, May 24, 2001 in the St Paul Pioneer Press
Low Wages, High Esteem
by Deborah Locke
Barbara Ehrenreich got her biggest laugh after sharing questions that Wal-Mart job applicants must answer. The application form at a Twin Cities-area Wal-Mart store asked this: In the past year, I've stolen $___ in goods from my employer. And this: True or false. It's easier to work when you are a little bit high.
Ehrenreich passed the test, and was hired for $7 an hour. Her work experiences there and as a minimum-wage employee in Maine and Florida provide the substance of the newly published "Nickel and Dimed -- On (Not) Getting By in America." She addressed a standing-room only crowd at the Macalester College campus on Tuesday.
The idea to go undercover to see if it was possible to live on entry-level wages occurred to Ehrenreich during this welfare reform era that has shoved 12 million women into the labor market since 1996. Unlike those women, Ehrenreich's employment episodes were temporary. She arrived at each work destination with such advantages as good health, no family to support, a car that worked and health insurance.
After winning the job at Wal-Mart, Ehrenreich settled into a "creepy" residential motel room as living quarters because there was no affordable housing adequate for her minimum wage. Her rent was $250 a week. The landlord provided no refrigerator, microwave or hot plate; she depended on fast food and convenience foods. At one low point in Minneapolis, Ehrenreich approached a private charity for help. A social worker told her to live in a shelter.
On her way to becoming a "Wal-Martian," Ehrenreich took part in an orientation session that introduced what she calls the "cult of Sam," referring to Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton. As part of the orientation, the new employees watched a video of throngs of shoppers with voice-over messages about the importance of being honest and earnest. One directive told new employees what to do if they found a pool of blood on the floor. With time, Ehrenreich said she detected a widespread disrespect from management for employees, who firmly believed that workers were "druggies, slackers and thieves. I was warned that my purse could be searched at any time."
The orientation leader went on to say that jeans were forbidden wear except for Fridays, and then the employee had to pay $1 for the privilege of wearing them. Employees could not say "damn" or "hell" or they would be fired. One of the clearest messages from the session was this: unions are evil. Organized labor may have worked a long time ago, but it no longer has much to offer.
Ehrenreich's sharp criticism for an oppressive corporate culture was balanced by quick mentions of people who work with pride under very difficult circumstances. She remembers Rosalie and Holly, who never ate lunch because they had no food even while working full-time, and George, the immigrant dishwasher who worked two jobs and slept in a dormitory.
"Something is really wrong when people work so hard full-time year-round and never make enough money to live comfortably," she said.
Ehrenreich met co-workers caught in credit card debt, and denounced the new federal law that penalizes the poor through stricter bankruptcy provisions. Meanwhile, credit card companies are free to act like drug dealers as they lure vulnerable people into accepting their cards.
She denounced the widespread criticism for the working poor that they should just go back to school, even while stuck in a trap like shift-work. "We need to realize that people in low-wage jobs do the work we depend on," said Ehrenreich, who worked in a Maine nursing home and considers it important work.
Ehrenreich is an anomaly herself. A journalist and author with a Ph.D. in cell biology, she had no trouble blending in with other low-wage workers. That's because, like them, she was inexperienced and learning new skills.
She said she will never be oblivious to low-wage employees again because they make her life possible. She pays attention to the woman behind the convenience store or gas station counter, and wonders how long that woman has been on her feet, and if she goes home to feed children. She wonders where the woman lives, in a motel or in a trailer crammed with too many other people.
The questions about the woman create a discomfort because they mean seeing pain. But we have to learn to see it, Ehrenreich said. That's how change is brought about.
TITLE: "Nickel and Dimed -- On (Not) Getting By in America" by Barbara Ehrenreich Metropolitan Books $23
© 2001 PioneerPlanet / St. Paul (Minnesota) Pioneer Press