From the sky Minnesota looks lush and picturesque. Barbara isn’t sure why she chose Minneapolis as her next destination: she knows Minnesota is a pretty liberal state and generous to its welfare poor, and an Internet search has shown that there are jobs for $8 an hour and studio apartments for $400 or less. This time, she’s looking for a more comfortable situation.
Barbara’s internet research seems to show that Minneapolis’ economic situation will be favorable to low-wage workers. Of course, if Maine’s tight labor market is any indication, we readers should be suspicious of such optimism.
Barbara gets a $10 map of the Twin Cities at the airport and picks up her new Rent-A-Wreck. She’s staying at the apartment of friends of friends while they’re back east for a few days, in return for taking care of their cockatiel (despite her phobia of birds). It’s a tiny one-bedroom with furnishings from the late seventies. It’s pleasant and cozy, and Barbara has learned that part of low-wage working life is sharing small spaces with others—in this case, a cockatiel.
Barbara’s short-term living situation is probably pretty authentic, given what she’s learned about the necessarily crowded apartments and shared rooms occupied by many of her coworkers. The cockatiel tidily symbolizes the minor tribulations that stem from having to be flexible about living arrangements.
The next morning, Barbara starts her job search, this time looking for a change to retail or factory work. She fills out applications at the closest Wal-Marts and the Targets across town, when it strikes her that with her lack of experience, she’ll have a better chance showing up in person. She calls one of the Wal-Marts and speaks to Roberta, who tells her to come into her store office. Roberta had six children before starting at Wal-Mart, so she’s sympathetic to Barbara “re-entering the workforce.” But after she takes Barbara’s personality survey to the computer to score, she comes back with the news that three answers are in need of further discussion. Barbara had left wriggle room in some survey questions so it didn’t look like she was faking out the test. It seems this was the wrong approach—it pays to be a full-blown suck-up.
Having gotten a relatively comprehensive introduction to the trials of low-wage labor in waitressing and housecleaning, Barbara is now ready for a change. Once again, she’s required to fill out a survey or test, according to which there are supposedly no wrong answers. However, Roberta’s desire for “further discussion” seems to challenge this claim. Barbara now can confirm that employers are looking for full-blown obedience and lack of independent thinking, and will be concerned if that doesn’t seem to be the case with potential employees.
After going through the questionable answers, Roberta introduces Barbara to Sam Walton’s personal philosophy—service, excellence, and something else Roberta can’t remember. Barbara expresses wholehearted agreement. All that’s left is to pass the drug test. Unfortunately, Barbara has had a slight “indiscretion” in the past few weeks involving marijuana, which she knows can linger in the body.
Barbara uses Roberta’s inability to remember the third branch of Sam Walton’s philosophy in order to subtly poke fun at it—if it’s that important and memorable, you would think it would be difficult to forget it. The drug test crops up again as a way for management to control employees.
So Barbara goes back to the help-wanted ads, and heads to an interview for an assembly job across town. She gets overwhelmed in the afternoon urban traffic and doesn’t reach the factory before 5. Lost, she pulls into a parking lot and sees a Menards housewares store (like a Home Depot) with a “Now Hiring” sign. Paul in the personnel office hands her the personality test: it seems rougher, asking questions about fistfights and whether dealing cocaine could ever not be a crime. Paul says she’d be good in plumbing at $8.50, as long as she passes a drug test.
At times like these, Barbara literally stumbles into job opportunities—another example of the strange disconnect between the tight labor market and the low wages she’s being offered. This personality test seems oriented towards a different, probably rougher crowd, but it similarly attempts to trick out potential employees.
After a full day of job searching, Barbara is feeling worn down from having to lie throughout the personality tests—she wouldn’t snitch on an employee and doesn’t believe management rules by divine right. It also frustrates her that her ability to perform a job well and her engaging qualities can be trumped by smoking pot. That weekend she goes on a drug detox, informed by internet searches and assisted by $30 ingredients bought at GNC.
In addition to the fact that the questions asked can easily be psyched out, Barbara realizes that the very process has a more subtle consequence, sucking the energy out of potential employees and making it clear that there’s no way they’ll be able to get around employer requirements and surveillance.
On Saturday Barbara also goes through all the apartment agencies, and comes up only with 12-month leases and plenty of places where they don’t answer the phone. The cockatiel, constantly squawking and pacing, prevents any kind of relaxation. On Sunday she goes to the home of an aunt of a friend from New York. Though Barbara has been concerned that it’s artificial to move to a totally new place without housing (making the project of her book inauthentic), friends and family, or a job, it turns out that this woman did exactly that in the seventies, moving from New York to Florida.
Already, Barbara’s internet searches prior to arriving don’t seem to square with the reality on the ground—especially given that she can’t afford a deposit on a 12-month lease, a common issue for people like those she’ll be working with in Minneapolis. Barbara’s visit to her friend’s aunt gives her the opportunity to supplement her own tale with a “true” story of someone who did seem to manage to make it entirely on her own.
Caroline lives with her family in a three-bedroom for $825 a month, which doesn’t seem bad to Barbara, though the block is full of drug dealers and the dining room ceiling leaks. But Caroline gets $9 an hour at a downtown hotel, and her husband makes $10 as a maintenance worker. Together, at $40,000 a year, they’re official “middle class.”
This anecdote recalls Barbara’s question to Holly about which homeowners were “wealthy”—the notion of class can be relative depending on various factors. But Caroline’s family also reveals that even “middle-class” families can be struggling.
Caroline is a real-life version of Barbara’s experiment: she’d been working in New Jersey when she left a difficult home situation and decided to leave for Florida, where she’d heard the rents were lower. She had clothes, Greyhound tickets, and $1,600 in cash. The bus dropped her and her kids off outside Orlando, where they stayed at a low-priced hotel and found a church. People from church drove her to the WIC (Women, Infants, and Children, a federal food program) and to find a school and day-care. Soon she found a job cleaning hotel rooms for about $300 a week, which gave her backaches and meant her 12-year-old had to watch the baby all evening.
The beginning of Caroline’s story seems to echo what Barbara did in Key West, including the relatively small amount saved up in cash. The theme of developing relationships in solidarity crops up again, here in the form of friendships developed at church. Though Caroline did manage to find a job, it came with major disadvantages including physical pain and the inability for her to see her children often.
Caroline was in constant stress and anxiety, in addition to pain from work. But she made a few friends, including Irene, a migrant farmworker whose boyfriend murdered a man who had raped her and was permanently in prison. Caroline took Irene in and she got a job, but after awhile Irene started drinking and carousing and finally left to live with a man. Caroline hasn’t been able to find Irene since. Caroline also met her current husband in Florida, though the two suffered bouts of homelessness before ending up here.
Caroline’s story forces the reader to recognize, once again, the acute physical and emotional distress that comes from low-wage labor. The instability inherent in it can lead to stories like that of Irene, who floats in and out of lives with her coworkers (just as Barbara has, though artificially so because of her experiment). Though Caroline’s life is now relatively stable, it’s clearly not without a great deal of struggle
When Barbara leaves to go, Caroline comes back with a family-sized container of homemade stew. Caroline truly did it all on her own, with children, Barbara realizes, while she herself is only a pretender.
Another reminder of how members of the working poor often only manage to make it due to kindness and solidarity shown by others.
On Monday, drug test day, Barbara goes to a chiropractor’s office for the Wal-Mart test. She is sent into a regular public rest room with plastic containers to fill (she could easily have substituted someone else’s pee with a vial). For Menards, she is sent to a suburban hospital, where, after forty minutes, a nurse arrives and tells her to go into a bathroom to wash her hands and pee while the nurse waits with her purse. She realizes how much drug testing limits workers’ mobility, since each potential new job requires the application, interview, and drug test, requiring hours spent driving around and money spent on babysitters.
Barbara describes in a detailed fashion a process that, most likely, few middle- or upper-class readers (barring professional sports players) would have experienced. The major lessons she takes from the experience deal with how much drug testing allows employers to exert control over workers, not only in their mobility but in their privacy and personal lives, which are interrupted in order to apply for a job at all.
Barbara continues applying for jobs, since she doesn’t yet know the drug tests results. She applies for one entry-level customer service job, involving a group interview conducted by Todd in a large room at “Mountain Air,” an “environmental consulting firm” offering help to people with asthma and allergies. They will be sent out to these people in their own cars and make $1,650 if they complete 54 2-hour appointments in a month. Mountain Air is really looking for a self-disciplined, money-motivated, and positive attitude—nothing about healing the sick, Barbara realizes. Todd stresses that the job is a question of taking people who have a serious problem, though far less serious than they think it is, and leaving them happy with a “Filter Queen” appliance. Barbara completes a personal 3-minute interview, and says she wants the job to help people with asthma. Nothing about the bottom line—which perhaps is why, 2 hours later, she’s told there’s no job for her.
Like many of Barbara’s interludes, this one both provides a bit of humor and serves to make a broader, relevant point about low-wage workers and the corporations for whom they work. Like The Maids, Mountain Air seems to embrace empty rhetoric and skills that, after considering them, don’t make too much sense. From “environmental consulting” to selling a “Filter Queen” appliance, such vocabulary leaves Barbara confused as to what the job even entails, other than making money for Todd or those above him. Of course, Barbara intimates, there’s no way a goal of “helping people with asthma” could possibly get her a job at such a place.
The apartment search, meanwhile, is increasingly desperate: the vacancy rate is apparently less than 1 percent, and even lower for “affordable” housing. Barbara is only now realizing how vast Minneapolis is, and that her two job possibilities are about 30 miles apart. There is one place, the Hopkins Park Plaza, which rents “affordable” apartments weekly or monthly. After days of trying to get in touch, she reaches Hildy, who says she might as well come apply (for $20), even if nothing’s available. Turnover is always high, Hildy says, so Barbara decides to turn down a $144-per-week basement apartment without a kitchenette—which turns out to be a mistake.
For the first time, Barbara has to navigate her way through a city where there’s an affordable housing crisis—even in places without such a crisis, she’d struggled to find a decent and affordable place to live. Barbara’s various attempts to reach Hildy underline how much time and energy such a search can take (recall all the energy spent on trying to find a food pantry), It’s difficult to tell without hindsight whether her decisions will turn out to be “mistakes.”
The rental agents that Barbara does reach recommend finding a weekly motel until something opens up. But the lowest is the Hill View at $200 per week, and it’s far outside the city, with no commercial establishments around. Another, Twin Lakes, is inside the city, but is $295. Everything looks gray and stained, but it’s her best bet, and she takes it.
Once again, Barbara has to do her best to juggle competing concerns—affordability, safety, gas prices, and ability to commute to work, among other factors. Everything she looks at, she realizes, has its own disadvantages.
On the job front, though, Barbara is told to show up for orientation at Menards on Wednesday morning. A blonde in her forties explains the rules, and says that the tools they’re required to wear on their belts will be deducted from their paycheck. They’re handed vests and IDs. Barbara has to ask if this means she’s hired, since there’s been no offer made, but it seems she is.
Though she hasn’t been told she’s been hired, Barbara is already being treated like an employee—vest, badge, rules and regulations and all. There’s no intermediate point between applying and being hired, as Barbara will realize.
Barbara meets her supervisor in plumbing, Steve, who’s nice, though she realizes the shelves contain no items she can name. But she learns she’ll be starting Friday and will be making an incredible $10 an hour.
Barbara is already aware that even the lowest wage labor requires certain specific skills—that she’s been hired speaks more to the fact that there aren’t that many available workers rather than to her skillset.
Though Barbara doesn’t need the Wal-Mart job now, Roberta calls her telling her to come the next day for orientation. When Roberta says the wage is $7 an hour (only after Barbara asks specifically), she decides she certainly won’t take the job, but will attend orientation for the sake of inquiry.
Again, Barbara is invited to orientation without explicitly being told that she’s hired, nor being told her wages (until she asks). This evasiveness speaks to one way employers hope to keep wages low, by keeping them out of the conversation until its too late and relying on potential employees’ discomfort with conflict or asking direct questions.
The Wal-Mart orientation, which Barbara believes is unrivaled in grandeur and intimidation, is supposed to take 8 hours. They begin with a video on the history and philosophy of Wal-Mart, including an almost cult-like legend about Sam Walton and Wal-Mart’s transformation from a five-and-dime into the nation’s largest private employer.
Once again, Barbara goes through an orientation in which the corporation at large, rather than middle management, instructs employees in how best to fulfill its own policies and philosophy, complete with an origin myth of the Waltons.
Sam is shown saying that the best ideas come from the employees or “associates,” like having a “people greeter” welcoming each customer upon entering the store. The associates are encouraged to think of managers as “servant leaders,” serving both them and the customers. But the music turns ominous as the video warns of problems with “associate honesty,” like thefts by cashiers.
Barbara writes all these phrases between quotation marks herself, showing just how skeptically she regards the special vocabulary and rhetoric employed by management. For her, such language is no more than muddying or hiding the truth.
Another video talks about the feeling of family for which Wal-Mart is so well known, meaning that there is no place for a union—in fact, it says, unions have been targeting Wal-Mart for years to greedily collect dues money. Employees could lose their voice to the union organizers and even their wages and benefits would be put at risk, the video warns.
Barbara makes it clear here that the videos seek to bias employees against unions before they even begin working: unions sometimes serve as a tool for employees to demand higher wages, so the dire warnings make sense for management.
Next are the rules against jewelry and blue jeans, and especially against “time theft”—doing anything other than working during company time (even as the employees’ time doesn’t seem to count, since during orientation they are often left for many minutes at a time in the small training room).
The warnings begin to accumulate, and by contrasting the time wasted in the orientation with the absurd-sounding “time theft,” Barbara shows how little Wal-Mart seems to trust or care about its employees.
Barbara drinks a caffeinated coffee—rare for her—and finds herself wired for the next steps: creating name cards for themselves, participating in Computer-Based Learning on topics like what to do if pools of human blood should appear on the sales floor.
The narration turns almost surrealist, as it’s difficult to tell whether Barbara’s overwhelmed state comes from the caffeine or from the ridiculous tasks.
That night is a sleepless one. Budgie the cockatiel has gone haywire and refuses to return to his cage. Small things have been going wrong: Barbara had to spend $11 to replace her watch battery, three wash cycles ($3.75) to get out an ink stain on her khakis, and pay $20 for the belt she needed for Menards. She’s still jittery from the caffeine, even though she’s due at Menards at 12.
When you’re living off close to minimum wage, small expenses and unforeseen costs can quickly add up. For Barbara, caffeine exacerbates this stress, but here caffeine also stands in for the constant stress and anxiety many low-wage workers feel when anything minor goes wrong.
Barbara now realizes that she’s employed at both places, but the endless orientation at Wal-Marts has done some work on her, and she can’t imagine mastering plumbing projects when she’s so sleep-deprived. She calls Paul, who says she’d be working from noon to eleven, and that $10 an hour can’t be right—he’ll have to check. Now Barbara is unnerved. She tells Paul she can’t start. It’s all, she admits to herself, because of the coffee mistake, since she’s now too exhausted to work for 11 hours in a row.
In a normal, low-stress state, Barbara was able to coolly compare the advantages and disadvantages of the jobs at Menards and Wal-Mart, but now, the physical stress she’s dealt with makes her act irrationally, making decisions based on the moment rather than on what makes economic sense. Barbara shows how easily this can happen to any low-wage worker.
Barbara wonders why she hadn’t bargained with Roberta about the wages. She realizes that employers are clever with their hiring process: one moves from application to orientation without ever meeting the potential employer as a free agent able to bargain. Even in a tight labor market like Minneapolis, the potential employee is made to feel like a supplicant.
Barbara had thought that economic laws of supply and demand would work in her favor in Minneapolis, but now she learns that employers have various tricks to pay as little as they can—and to make employees feel like they’re not worth a better option.
On Saturday, Barbara packs up and heads to the Twin Lakes, where she finds that the room she’d requested is now taken. She calls the Clearview Inn, another rental place, which is $245 per week and closer to the Wal-Mart. That price is still higher than her aftertax weekly pay, but she’s confident she’ll get a room from Hildy next week, and the weekend job at a supermarket that she applied to.
Once again, Barbara’s well-thought-out plans are stymied by unforeseen events, meaning that she’s forced, again, to recalculate her budget. The fact that her new rent alone is higher than her income doesn’t bode well—at the very least it means she’ll be playing catch-up for the next few weeks.
The Clearview Inn may well be the worst motel in the country—not an easy feat. There’s a stench of mold when the wife of the young East Indian owner shows Barbara in. She switches to another room with a bed, chair, drawers, and a TV fastened to the wall, with a single overhead bulb. There’s no AC or fan and no bolt on the door. She can see through the other motel windows to rooms with a woman with a baby, two bunches of teenagers, and various single men.
In her attempt to balance affordability and proximity to work, Barbara has had to give up cleanliness—it seems that it’s impossible to have all three at her budget. If her view is any indication, the working poor in Minneapolis are just as likely to have to live in close quarters in less-than-ideal apartments in order to make things work.
Without a bolt, shades, or screens, Barbara feels vulnerable and is afraid to sleep. She dozes on and off, realizing at one point in the night that poor women really do have more to fear than women who live in houses with double locks, dogs, and husbands.
Another, less mentioned aspect of low-wage working life is the likelihood of a lack of safe living conditions, which is only exacerbated by issues faced by women.
That Monday, Barbara arrives to Wal-Mart and is directed to ladies’ wear. Ellie, a manager, sets her to “zone” the summer dresses, or group them by color, design, and size. She helps Melissa, also new on the job, to consolidate certain Kathie Lee dresses so that the other silky ones can be prominently displayed in the “image” area.
Once again, Barbara is faced with new expectations and a new vocabulary to master, from “zone” to “image” when referring to ladies’ wear—skills that the corporate orientation was less interested in cultivating than it was in explaining the rules.
Their job turns out to be keeping the ladies’ wear area “shoppable.” Instead of asking if customers need help, they’re meant to put away the “returns” and the items scattered and dropped by customers. For the first few days, Barbara struggles to memorize the one thousand-square-foot layout, from the “woman” sizes through the Kathie Lee and teen-oriented Jordache collections. There are dozens of each kind of item, and the layout suddenly changes every few days.
As with her job at The Maids, Barbara’s position here seems less oriented to the customers’ needs (an actually clean house, help with finding something) and more to maximized efficiency. Her struggle to memorize everything is another reminder that “unskilled” labor is anything but.
Barbara feels resentful and somewhat contemptuous the first few days: nothing’s very urgent, and no one will go hungry or be hurt if she makes a mistake. Wal-Mart mandates that all employees in this section be called “ladies,” and bars them from raising their voices or swearing, which she also finds grating.
Barbara had gotten through the day at her other jobs by attempting to feel needed or significant (even though this was against the companies’ best attempts), but here it’s difficult to even pretend to do so.
At Wal-Mart, customers shop with shopping carts filled to the brim, often leaving about 90 percent rejected. Barbara and Melissa measure their workload in “carts.” It takes her 45 minutes to return the rejected contents from a cart her first week, which she eventually gets down to 30. There’s minimal human interaction, though sometimes Melissa and Barbara try to make up a task they can do together.
By describing her daily tasks down to the number of minutes it takes to clear a cart, Barbara gives the reader some insight into the monotony of the job. She and Melissa attempt to deal with this monotony by working together when they can, though the tasks are clearly not set up to facilitate relationships.
Barbara likes Ellie, who’s polite and demure, though she doesn’t like the assistant manager, Howard, who spends ten minutes taking attendance at the first meeting. He admonishes associates for loitering and talking to each other and for committing “time theft.”
Howard seems like another one of those managers who’ve crossed to the “other side,” obsessed with serving the corporation rather than representing the employees.
When Barbara arrives at the Clearview, the sewage has been backed up in her room and is all over the floor. She’s moved into another room, which has a screen in tatters and, again, no fan. She only has a few possessions with her, the most expensive of which is her laptop, but with temperatures in the nineties she hesitates to leave it in the car trunk during the day.
As Barbara deals with monotony at work, her home life has its own difficulties, as even a motel beyond her budget fails to satisfy basic needs of cleanliness and safety. A small issue like where to leave her laptop grows complicated as a result.
That afternoon at Wal-Mart, Alyssa, another new orientee, had asked whether a clearanced $7 polo shirt might fall further. Barbara hadn’t recalled that polos, not t-shirts, are required for employees, but at $7 an hour a $7 polo shirt is beyond her budget.
Another irony of low-wage work: Wal-Mart requires a uniform that its employees can’t afford based on the salary that the company itself pays them.
That evening, Barbara scopes out the low-priced food options in Clearview—only a Chinese buffet or Kentucky Fried Chicken. She chooses the latter and eats in front of the TV, though it’s tricky without a table, and wonders why the contestants on Survivor would ever volunteer for an artificially daunting task—before remembering her own situation.
Another example of how both price and proximity make it far easier for low-wage workers to eat fast food rather than venture out to distant produce markets. Of course, as the humorous Survivor scene reminds us, Barbara is only a visitor to this world.
Barbara notices that there’s only one bed for the two African American men who live next door—she can see everything, and notices that they take turns sleeping in the bed and in the van outside. It seems that Clearview is full of working people who just don’t have the capital for a regular apartment. She wakes up at night to hear a woman singing sadly against the sound of trucks on the highway.
The mention of a mournful song against the sound of trucks seems straight out of a movie, but Barbara uses it to make a point about the general atmosphere of quiet desperation that pervades a place like Clearview.
The next morning, Barbara buys hard-boiled eggs at a convenience store and takes out the trash. The owner’s wife does clean the rooms, but she rarely remembers more than the bare basics. Barbara pictures the wife as a product of an arranged marriage and a move from her native village to Clearview, Minnesota, with a husband who may not even speak her language.
Barbara has been experiencing low-wage working life as an English-speaking American. Here she tries to imagine a different kind of struggle — in addition to economic difficulties, the need to adjust to a vastly different culture and language.
The next morning, Barbara tries to spruce herself up: she doesn’t want to look homeless, though she essentially is. She’s been stressed and getting stomachaches, so she hasn’t been eating lunch – not ideal in a job where she’s always on her feet.
Barbara attempts to cling to her dignity by looking presentable. Even though she’s no longer vigorously scrubbing floors, much of low-wage labor is physically exhausting.
That day, though, Barbara arrives with bounce in her step to Wal-Mart, trying to think positively. She’d told Melissa she was living on fast food at a hotel, so Melissa has brought her a sandwich for lunch. Barbara is overwhelmed by this generosity, which counteracts the severe, penny-pinching corporate philosophy.
Barbara has often found that fellow workers who understand her financial situation have provided help and comfort—and that this solidarity could not be more different than the empty corporate rhetoric about company “families.”
In Barbara’s second week, her shift changes from 10-6 to 2-11, so an extra half hour and a dinner break. Her two 15-minute breaks are now vital, and she tries to juggle simultaneous needs of drinking, getting outside, and sitting down, especially when heading to the Radio Grill for an iced tea could waste four precious minutes. The post-Memorial Day weekend lull has ended, so there are always at least a dozen shoppers in ladies’, and whole families in the evening.
One previously unexamined element of low-wage labor is the uncertainty of shift hours—companies can easily change an employee’s shift from day to night or weekday to weekend, which complicates the ability to get a second job or ensure day care. Such sudden changes show how little the employer cares about its employees and just how much control the employer has over the employees’ lives.
For the first half of the shift, Barbara manages to be helpful and cheery. But at 6 or 7, she starts to detest the shoppers—the toddlers who pull down everything in reach, the obese Caucasians—and consider them merely an interruption from how things should be, with every piece of clothing unsold and in its place.
Like at Jerry’s, Barbara starts to become susceptible to the pressures and stress of the job, making her increasingly misanthropic—though, tellingly, no less likely to want to do a good job.
One evening, Barbara is exhausted when she returns from her last break to find a new employee folding T-shirts in one of “her” areas. The woman says Barbara has been putting certain T-shirts away in the wrong place. She chides Barbara not to forget to check the ten-digit UPC numbers. Barbara snaps back at her, saying their time is better spent putting things away from the carts. The woman says she only folds—she’s too petite to reach the upper racks, which gives Barbara malicious glee. She worries that she’s growing into a meaner, bitchier person. “Barb,” which is on her ID tag and what she was called as a child, isn’t Barbara. She wonders if this is who she would have become without her father’s luck and hard work.
Throughout this scene, Barbara portrays her coworker as “the woman,” or just “she,” underlining Barbara’s point about how the stress of the job makes her unwilling to see someone else as another human being, rather than as an interruption of the tasks she has to complete. It’s interesting that this worrisome result of unpleasant labor seems to coexist with the solidarity often shown among coworkers, as when Melissa brings Barbara a sandwich, for instance.
The day Barbara moves to the Hopkins Park Plaza, there’s a new woman there, who says Barbara misunderstood and the room won’t be available until next week. Barbara is dismayed. But she knows that at $179 a week, even Hopkins Park would be too expensive without a second job. She’s applied for a weekend job at the Rainbow supermarket for $8 an hour. With both jobs, she’d make about $320 a week after taxes, so that rent will be 55 percent of her income, or closer to “affordable.” But then, Rainbow decides they need her five days a week, not just weekends, and Howard schedules a different day off for her every week.
Barbara’s frantic calculations show just how little wiggle room she’s left with when trying to reconcile income with expenses. Economists actually say that rent should be around 30 percent of income, but Barbara is obviously far from being able to follow ideal economic advice. This is also another example of how companies’ power over employees can complicate their lives, as available and required shifts can quickly change.
In the long run, Barbara knows things will work out if she devotes her mornings to job hunting while waiting for a Hopkins Park opening or an apartment at $400 a month. But by then she’ll really be broke. The YWCA refers her to Budget Lodging, which only has dorm beds for $19 a night. She’s relieved to rule that out since it’s on the other side of Minneapolis.
The problem with waiting for things to work on in the long run is that many low-wage workers simply can’t save enough to wait out a difficult period, forced to resort even to the idea of staying in dorm beds.
Barbara calls Caroline for any insights, and Caroline invites Barbara to move in with her family. Though Barbara refuses, she’s rejuvenated by the sense that she’s not entirely alone. The Clearview now wants $55 a night for further nights, but the Comfort Inn has a room available for $49.95 a night. She reserves but feels defeated, though less so when she sees a front-page newspaper headline saying “Apartment rents skyrocket,” while vacancy rates remain low. Prosperity, ironically, is increasing upward pressure on rents and further hurting low-wage workers.
Caroline’s offer is another reminder of solidarity, especially since Barbara knows Caroline has gone through similar periods herself. Here, Barbara is able to tie her own apartment hunt into broader social and economic trends in Minneapolis, in which economic growth has proved unable to raise standard of living for its lowest-wage citizens.
When Barbara moves into the Comfort Inn, she thinks it’ll only be for a night or two, but this turns out to be her moment of final defeat. In three weeks she’s spent over $500 and discovers that she has earned only $42 from Wal-Mart for orientation. They’ve withheld her first week’s pay, and when they do pay her it will come too late.
Barbara had decided to stay for a month at each place, but it doesn’t take a full month for her to realize that her attempt to equate income with expenses in Minneapolis is doomed—a failure caused mainly by rent issues but exacerbated by Wal-Mart’s payment policy.
Though Barbara never finds an apartment, her last attempt is to call the United Way of Minneapolis, through which she finally reaches the Community Emergency Assistance Program. A woman there suggests she moves into a homeless shelter to save up for a rent and deposit, and sends her to another office to apply for a housing subsidy. But there, she finds only an out-of-date list of affordable apartments.
Housing aid, like the food aid options in Portland, Maine, turns out to be far less helpful than Barbara might have hoped. The suggestion of moving into a shelter is extreme and seems hardly sustainable as a means of helping people move up out of poverty.
Back at the first office, the woman says she’ll find some kind of emergency food aid: a bar of soap, lots of candy and cookies, and a one-pound can of ham. The woman mixes Barbara up several times with someone else who worked at Wal-Mart who came in a few days ago. Barbara had already realized that many of her coworkers are poor, but now knows that some of them are residents of shelters.
Once again, food aid for the poor is neither convenient (she has no fridge or freezer to put the ham) nor healthy. The fact that more than one employee of Wal-Mart has relied on emergency aid within the space of a few days is a damning indictment of the low wages paid.
Now, at the Comfort Inn, Barbara lives surreally in a business traveler’s room before going out to her shabby “real” life. But she sleeps better, and improves from day to day at Wal-Mart. On one Saturday, a heavier shopping day, she arrives to clothes tossed inches deep on the floor, but reaches a kind of flow state in which all her tasks seem to complete themselves. She realizes, while picking things up, that what she does here is what most mothers do at home, picking up the toys and spills—so here the mothers get to behave like small children. She suggests her theory to her coworker Isabelle: that rates of child abuse would soar without them around to give mothers this break, and they should be getting paid like therapists as a result, and Isabelle just laughs.
The surrealism Barbara mentions stems from something she’s already learned—that the working poor are often forced into wildly inefficient living situations simply because they’re unable to save up enough to actually save money. As usual, she’s able to draw some kind of humor from her surroundings and current work situation, here trying to make her coworker laugh with her comment about preventing abuse. But her thought is also a reminder that the people who shop at Wal-Mart are sometimes taking a brief respite from their own home and work struggles.
Barbara has to wonder why anyone puts up with the wages they’re paid. Most of her fellow workers have other jobs or partners, but still, there’s no signs of complaining or resentment. Maybe it’s what happens when drug tests and personality “surveys” create a uniformly servile workplace, she thinks. But Wal-Mart is also a world within itself, a super-sized corporate entity directed from afar and against any form of local initiative.
Here Barbara ventures two hypotheses on a question she’ll return to in the Evaluation chapter: if low wages like those Wal-Mart pays are so insufficient, why don’t workers demand higher wages – especially in a tight labor market? Here, her hypotheses deal mainly with the success of corporate rhetoric.
Barbara asks Isabelle how she can afford to live on $7 an hour, and she says she lives with her grown daughter, who also works. She also now gets paid $7.75 an hour after two years, and tells Barbara to be patient. Melissa says she made twice as much when she was a waitress, but that place closed down. Barbara understands Melissa’s unwillingness to start up again searching for another job, with the applications, interviews, and drug tests.
Isabelle’s living situation seems to confirm Barbara’s sense that extended families or artificial families are the only ways people can find housing stability. Melissa’s experience, meanwhile, helps Barbara understand the difficulty of simply changing jobs to get a better salary – it’s more complicated than that.
A few days later, Melissa is assigned to bras, a new section for her. She confides to Barbara that she doesn’t like taking too long with a new task and wasting the company’s money. Barbara can’t imagine why Melissa worries about the Waltons’ wasted labor.
Melissa’s concern is, to Barbara, an example of how companies brainwash employees so that they feel both needed, but also unworthy enough that they can “waste” the company’s time.
That day, Alyssa returns to check on the clearanced $7 polo and finds a stain on it. She is trying to negotiate a further reduction in the cost with the fitting room lady when Howard appears and says there are no employee discounts on clearance items. Barbara says to Alyssa later that it can’t be right when Wal-Mart employees can’t afford to buy a clearanced Wal-Mart shirt.
Barbara’s comment to Alyssa makes it clear what she thinks about the wages Wal-Mart pays its employees, as well as its general treatment of people who work there—again, it’s ironic that Alyssa can’t afford to buy even a mandated uniform at the store.
At an employee meeting, Barbara is listening to another associate complain about how bad a deal the company health insurance is, when Barbara realizes they need a union. She corners other employees outside at cigarette breaks, and finds that no one gets paid overtime, and the health insurance is considered not worth paying for. A twenty-something named Stan is eager to talk to her about wages: he originally wanted to work while studying at a two-year technical school, but work cut into studying and he had to drop out. Another woman, Marlene, says that Wal-Mart would just rather keep hiring new people than treat the ones it has well—it’s constantly bringing new people in for orientation.
Barbara’s realization is probably not going to lead to union recognition for Wal-Mart employees: in terms of the book’s plot, it allows her to learn more about the plight of her fellow workers by bonding around their equally low wages and lack of benefits like overtime and reasonable health insurance. She sees the results first-hand: Stan is unable to continue his education, for example, and Marlene feels insecure in her job even though there’s a tight labor market which means there should be options for each worker.
Though Barbara thinks any union could help somewhat, she doesn’t believe that unions are a cure-all. She really just wants to puncture the fantasy of the Wal-Mart “family,” with the rhetoric of “servant leaders” and “guests.” She’s also discovering how monotonous a lot of low-wage work can be, which doesn’t apply as much to waitressing or housecleaning. Instead there are just full carts, then empty ones. She looks at her gray, cranky coworkers and wonders how soon she would become like them.
Here Barbara admits that her push for unionization doesn’t mean that she thinks the knotty problems she’s uncovered could be undone simply through this one solution. However, unions do provide an opportunity to counter prevailing corporate rhetoric with another kind of rhetoric – and they’d also give workers a concrete means of fighting for better wages and benefits.
However, then something does happen: 1,450 unionized hotel workers strike at nine local hotels. That day, Barbara is supposed to call two lesser-priced motels as possible options for her to move to from the Comfort Inn, but has left the phone numbers in her car and wonders if she can get away with “time theft” by running to her car. But then Howard tells her she’s behind on her Computer-Based Learning and tells her to get back to the computer area. She heads that way, then sneaks outside to her car, at one point having to dodge into shoes to avoid Howard. But neither of the motels has an opening – her Wal-Mart career is about to end abruptly.
This scene reveals the absurdity of Wal-Mart’s rules against “time theft,” as Barbara describes in detail her attempt to reach the car, which sounds like she was participating in a bank heist. Of course, we’re reminded at the end of the scene that this has been, to an extent, an act – one which is about to end now that Barbara knows for certain that she won’t be able to equal expenses to income for her time in Minneapolis.
That evening, Barbara tells Melissa she’ll be quitting soon, and Melissa says she might do so too—Barbara knows Melissa might be saying this since it’s so much more pleasant to work with someone you like. She tells Melissa about the book, and Melissa just nods and says she hopes she hasn’t said too many negative things about Wal-Mart. Melissa also says she’s been thinking that $7 an hour isn’t nearly enough for how hard we work, and she’s going to apply for a plastics factory where she can hopefully get $9.
Like many of Barbara’s previous coworkers, Melissa is nonchalant about Barbara’s big reveal – again, it’s not as if Barbara hasn’t been doing the work, just like her. Melissa still seems torn between her natural loyalty to the corporation and a growing sense that there’s a disconnect between wages paid and the physical and emotional toll of the labor.
At Barbara’s last break, she and one other woman are watching TV in the break room when the local news turns to the hotel strike. A senator is shaking hands with the son of a picketer and says he should be proud of his father. The other woman jumps up and waves her fist. She ends up telling Barbara about her daughter, her long hours, and her inability to save. Barbara says she still thinks they could have done something together if she could have afforded to work at Wal-Mart longer.
Barbara’s last job ends on a hopeful note, as it seems that, at the very least, some of her Wal-Mart coworkers increasingly have some awareness of the unfair playing field, even if this knowledge isn’t translated into action. The last sentence has Barbara ironically noting that, because of rent troubles, she literally cannot afford to continue working at Wal-Mart.