Nickel and Dimed

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Drug Tests Symbol Analysis

Drug Tests Symbol Icon
At nearly all of Barbara’s jobs, from waitressing to sorting ladies’ wear at Wal-Mart, drug testing is either threatened or required. At one point, Barbara cites research showing that in one study, out of hundreds of thousands of drug tests and millions of dollars spent, less than a hundred prospective employees failed the test. She argues that rather than a true safety or security measure, drug testing symbolizes and underlines the deep suspicion and sense of distrust that many employers have for their employees. They fail to consider low-wage workers as human beings deserving of the same kind of dignity as anyone else. To complete a drug test, a prospective employee has to drive to a hospital or doctor’s office and usually pee into a cup without the benefit of much privacy. The process is meant to remind the prospective worker that he or she is in a position of dependency on the employer and lower-class status.

Drug Tests Quotes in Nickel and Dimed

The Nickel and Dimed quotes below all refer to the symbol of Drug Tests. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
The Economics of Poverty Theme Icon
). Note: all page and citation info for the quotes below refers to the Henry Holt & Company edition of Nickel and Dimed published in 2008.
Chapter 3 Quotes

There’s no intermediate point in the process in which you confront the potential employer as a free agent, entitled to cut her own deal. The intercalation of the drug test between application and hiring tilts the playing field even further, establishing that you, and not the employer, are the one who has something to prove. Even in the tightest labor market—and it doesn’t get any tighter than Minneapolis, where I would probably have been welcome to apply at any commercial establishment I entered—the person who has precious labor to sell can be made to feel one down, way down, like a supplicant with her hand stretched out.

Related Characters: Barbara Ehrenreich (speaker)
Related Symbols: Drug Tests
Page Number: 149
Explanation and Analysis:

Barbara has gone through the job application process at two places, Menards and Wal-Mart, and now she realizes that she's technically been hired at both, almost without realizing it, and without the chance to negotiate her salary or work hours. Barbara argues that corporations string potential employees along, making them feel like contingent, replaceable figures, until they can benevolently extend a job offer that one can only gratefully accept. Drug tests, for Barbara, are a clear example of how corporations subject individuals to embarrassing, undignified procedures in order to underline the true balance of power between them.

By describing her experience in a place like Minneapolis, which at the time Barbara was there was in great need of labor, Barbara argues that it's impossible to explain this hierarchical process as a result of high supply and low demand. Instead, she claims, the purpose of such processes is to put the potential employee in his or her "proper place." Part of the motivation for this might stem from the need to keep workers feeling lucky to have a job and less likely to pose problems or leave for another place. In addition, Barbara believes that another result is to cut off the possibility for salary negotiation, so that companies can get away with paying their employees as little as possible. 

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Evaluation Quotes

What surprised and offended me most about the low-wage workplace (and yes, here all my middle-class privilege is on full display) was the extent to which one is required to surrender one’s basic civil rights and—what boils down to the same thing—self-respect.

Related Characters: Barbara Ehrenreich (speaker)
Related Symbols: Drug Tests
Page Number: 208
Explanation and Analysis:

Barbara asks why, if workers are discouraged from seeking better wages and conditions elsewhere, they don't just simply demand better ones at the places where they do work. She identifies one reason as being the community-oriented corporate rhetoric that attempts to make employees feel like part of a team and invested in the company. Here, she proposes another possibility: the routine interruption of basic civil rights. This takes place, as we have seen, in the process of drug testing, which is embarrassing and degrading, as well as in purse searches and in the constant monitoring by managers, which creates an environment of suspicion. 

Barbara argues that these infringements on civil rights are not just shocking to someone from the (white) middle class who has never had to question her own freedom in a democratic society. In addition, these procedures create a fundamental gap between different socioeconomic levels of society, ensuring that those who make the least are constantly reminded of their proper place and making it difficult for them to ever question this place. Without the self-respect that comes from understanding oneself as a free member of a democracy, it is unlikely for a low-wage worker to consider him- or herself as worthy of better wages or conditions.

My guess is that the indignities imposed on so many low-wage workers—the drug tests, the constant surveillance, being “reamed out” by managers—are part of what keeps wages low. If you’re made to feel unworthy enough, you may come to think that what you’re paid is what you’re actually worth.

Related Characters: Barbara Ehrenreich (speaker)
Related Symbols: Drug Tests
Page Number: 211
Explanation and Analysis:

Here, Barbara explicitly identifies a number of the procedures that work to keep low-wage workers "in their place." She calls them "indignities," but they are just a synonym for what earlier has been labeled infringement on civil liberties. For Barbara, the economics of the working poor are not to be isolated from the social and ideological elements of their lives. Indeed, she argues that the shame workers are made to feel, the degrading nature of the procedures to which they are subjected, are directly tied to the absurdly low wages that they are paid. Indeed, as she has argued elsewhere, it is in companies' interest to prevent their workers from considering themselves as worthy of a higher wage, so it is also in their interests to make employees feel as unworthy as possible.

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Drug Tests Symbol Timeline in Nickel and Dimed

The timeline below shows where the symbol Drug Tests appears in Nickel and Dimed. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Chapter 1: Serving in Florida
The Economics of Poverty Theme Icon
Shame and Solidarity Theme Icon
...is told to go to a doctor’s office the next day for a urine test: drug testing is a general rule for low-wage work, she discovers. She thinks the $6-an-hour wage... (full context)
Shame and Solidarity Theme Icon
Individuals and Corporate Rhetoric Theme Icon
...all brought into the kitchen at 3:30 p.m., and Phillip announces that there’s been some “drug activity” on the night shift. Now, all new hires will be tested, and current employees... (full context)
Chapter 3: Selling in Minnesota
Individuals and Corporate Rhetoric Theme Icon
...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,... (full context)
The Economics of Poverty Theme Icon
Shame and Solidarity Theme Icon
...Paul says she’d be good in plumbing at $8.50, as long as she passes a drug test. (full context)
Shame and Solidarity Theme Icon
Individuals and Corporate Rhetoric Theme Icon
On Monday, drug test day, Barbara goes to a chiropractor’s office for the Wal-Mart test. She is sent... (full context)
Individuals and Corporate Rhetoric Theme Icon
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... (full context)
Individuals and Corporate Rhetoric Theme Icon
...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... (full context)
The Economics of Poverty Theme Icon
Individuals and Corporate Rhetoric Theme Icon
...Melissa’s unwillingness to start up again searching for another job, with the applications, interviews, and drug tests. (full context)
Evaluation
The Economics of Poverty Theme Icon
...else use a bike, which limits range. Just filling out applications, being interviewed, and taking drug tests is a hassle and leads to more time without work. (full context)
Shame and Solidarity Theme Icon
Individuals and Corporate Rhetoric Theme Icon
...basic civil rights: her purse could be searched at any time at the restaurant, and drug testing is a routine degrading act that has the function of keeping employees “in their... (full context)
The Economics of Poverty Theme Icon
Shame and Solidarity Theme Icon
Individuals and Corporate Rhetoric Theme Icon
...they tend to distrust these people and spend great amounts of money on things like drug and personality testing. Barbara identifies a broader parallel between this sort of corporate behavior and... (full context)