Good help is so hard to find nowadays

A waitress with a PhD discovers what life on minimum wage means

Barbara Ehrenreich's new book "Nickel and Dimed" is a tough, engaging, and revealing look at life as a low-wage worker.

Ehrenreich, an acclaimed author with a PhD, cleans houses, waits tables, and works as a sales clerk at Wal-Mart to present a ground-level view of life in the working-class trenches.

The idea for the book, ironically, came over a $30 lunch with the editor of Harper's. Ehrenreich was pitching a few story ideas when the conversation wandered: How does anyone live on the wages available to the unskilled? (Almost 30 percent of the workforce, she claims, toils for $8 an hour or less.) So, in 1998, she joined them.

During her three-month sojourn, Ehrenreich lived and worked in Key West, Fla., Portland, Maine, and Minneapolis. She took the cheapest lodgings she could find and the highest-paying jobs that she could land quickly. Her goal: to see if she could earn, in that time, enough money to pay a second month's rent.

Her sobering conclusion: One pay check isn't nearly enough. (And this was without children to feed.) In Key West, she worked two different waitressing jobs plus a $6.10-an-hour stint as a motel housekeeper. Indeed, many of the people Ehrenreich worked with couldn't afford the deposit on an apartment and lived in motels.

Her second conclusion: No job is truly unskilled. It takes time to learn the ropes - a key reason (right up there with transportation) why people don't "get up and go" for better-paying jobs.

"Every one of the six jobs I entered into in the course of this project required concentration, and most demanded that I master new terms, new tools, and new skills - from placing orders on restaurant computers to wielding the backpack vacuum cleaner. None of these things came as easily to me as I would have liked."

Her experience at a national maid service in Maine is the most revealing. She works with a team of women, one in particular, who is "visibly unwell" and "manages to feed her husband, herself, and an elderly relative on $30-$50 a week." She's constantly nauseated - turns out she's pregnant - and won't stop working, even after she injures her ankle.

So what did Ehrenreich's bleak adventure prove? She sums it up well in her final pages:

"The 'working poor,' as they are approvingly termed, are in fact the major philanthropists of our society. They neglect their own children so that the children of others will be cared for; they live in substandard housing so that other homes will be shiny and perfect; they endure privation so that inflation will be low and stock prices high. To be a member of the working poor is to be an anonymous donor, a nameless benefactor, to everyone else."

Shelley Donald Coolidge occasionally writes workplace stories for the Monitor.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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