Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America| March 29 2009 A riveting tale about the world of low class workers, Ehrenreich puts into words what most are don’t acknowledge or are afraid to acknowledge. Through first-hand experience, Ehrenreich successfully navigates her way through the low wage work by working such common low wage jobs as waitressing, housecleaning, and sales. While along the way discovering that each job encompasses their own organizational structure, culture, and identity that she is focused to discover and conform with while being paid no more than $7. 00 an hour and even at some points as little as $2. 3 (plus tips). Ehrenreich persuasively forces us to realize that the American dream is slowly slipping away. No longer is America the land of opportunity where hard work pays off, instead millions are suffering in route to servicing to their rich counterparts. The tale begins in Key West, which outsiders describe as a “real treat” and a “vacation you’re still talking about” (Key West website, 2009, para 1), but as soon to be learned turns out to be a struggle and anything but a treat for anyone wishing to obtain who what others consider “unspecialized work” and live in non-moving lodging.
Barbara starts her low wage job at a place called the Hearthside, where she works as a waitress. She quickly learns about the organizational structure accompanying this position. As described in Organizational Communication in an Age of Globalization, a hierarchy “refers to the vertical levels of an organization. It represents the distribution of authority among organizational roles or positions” (Cheney, Christensen, Zorn, Ganesh, pg. 21) It is here at Hearthside, Barbara gets a taste of the real word application of this structure. Hearthside is composed a hierarchy.
There are several employees, which remain on a lower vertical level, like Gail and Barbara. These employees are superseded and monitored by an assistant manager, Stu and Stu is superseded by other management working within the organization, like Phillip. Phillip is described as the “top manager except for an occasional consultant sent by corporate headquarters”. (Ehrenreich pg. 23) While distant and not physically there, corporate headquarters oversees and supersedes Phillip and is at the top of the Hearthside’s hierarchy triangle. Of course to some degree there is differentiation and specialization within the Hearthside. Specialization refers to the role-specific behavior that focuses on certain duties and activities and differentiation refers to the state of segmentation in and organization that divides it into specific groupings. ” (Banner and Gagne, pg 133) So for example this is demonstrated at the Hearthside through the division of labor. Gail and Barbara work as waitresses, Joan works a hostess, Claude works as a cook, Stu and Phillip as management, and I’m sure there are several other departments within the Hearthside, like maintenance and purchasing that are not discussed, due to lack of interaction.
Also Hearthside does have a level of formalization, “the degree to which interactions in the organizations are characterized by rules, regulations, and norms”. (Cheney, Christensen, Zorn, and Ganesh, pg. 22) This becomes evident on page 23, when the mandatory meeting is discussed. Phillip, the manager, discusses the how employees are no longer to “gossip” with each other on the clock or eat at the restaurant when off duty. Also the amount of croutons they are allowed to put on the salad is even mandated to six and what their required to wear to work is also mandated.
Perhaps far more interesting than the structure of the Hearthside, is the culture of the Hearthside. Most simply put the organizational culture of an organization is the “personality of the organization”. (Free Management Library website, 2008, para 1) At the Hearthside, employees strengthen their bonds and culture through making fun of management and their dislike of Stu. For example “Lionel, the busboy, entertains us for the rest of the shift by standing just behind Stu’s back and sucking deliriously on an imaginary joint or maybe a pipe”. (Ehrenreich pg. 5) A strong culture is said to exist where staff respond to stimulus because of their alignment to organizational values. (Dayton Business Journal website, 2002, para 1) Therefore, the Hearthside can be said to have a strong organizational culture. This is demonstrated through the employee’s dedication to the same goal of providing quality service. This can be seen through Gail as she attempted to provide extra croutons on the salad, waitresses using tip money to provide a customer with a meal, the cooks cooking the food in a quality way and having the food out on-time, and even he dishwashers taking some sort of pride in accomplishing the dishes in a timely matter. Ironically the biggest detriment to providing quality service at the Hearthside was management and their stingy policies, which demand a mandated amount of sour cream or croutons. The identity of the Hearthside is a difficult one to define and discuss because Ehrenreich doesn’t provide us with much information about their advertising, logos, or mission statements, but from what the book indicates Hearthside can identify as a “family restaurant”. This identity can be shown through the type of clientele. “The plurality of my customers are hardworking locals- truck drivers, construction workers, even housekeepers from the attached hotel. ” Ehrenreich pg. 19) The Hearthside adds to their identity by appealing to family or “locals” as opposed to other clientele by the kinds of food they serve: steak, grits, garden salads, pie, etc. Another element that helps add to the identity of the Hearthside is the dress code. All employees who work with the public have to wear black pants and a rust colored polo. This identification of employees helps add to the “oneness” of the Hearthside.
After learning about the perils of Key West, Barbara continued her journey up to beautiful Portland, Maine. Portland is known as Maine’s business, financial and retail capital and the largest city in the state (City of Portland website, 2009). It is here that Barbara thought she would be able to be successful in her low wage work and enjoy the striking countryside, but she later finds out that her dreams of low wage success in Maine would never come true. Here in Portland, Maine, Barbara begins her job at The Maids, a cleaning service, where she starts out at a whopping $6. 65 an hour.
Much like the Hearthside, Barbara soon figures out The Maids runs on the organizational structure of hierarchy, but instead of employing multiple layers there are only few. For example there several other maids like Barbara, which form a group that is sent out to clean houses and within that group there is team leader who is in charge of assigning duties and in charge of the group as a whole and Ted, the franchise owner, is in charge and supersedes of all the “maids”. Ted technically owns the business, but he is restricted to certain training and guidelines for running and advertising the business by the franchiser.
To some degree The Maids use differentiation and specialization, but definitely not like the Hearthside. The Maids use differentiation and specialization by assigning different tasks to different people for a certain house. These tasks are usually divided by room, though, not by a certain level of specialization. For example one person does not only do dusting or vacuuming, instead they are divided up into rooms, where they perform various household chores within the room(s). The Maids also uses a certain degree of formalization, which could have either been initiated by Ted or by the franchiser.
Maids must follow the following rules: “No smoking anywhere, no drinking, eating, or gum chewing in the house, and no cursing in the house”. (Ehrenreich, pg. 71) Maids are also given certain time limits depending on the size of the house. “We are given only so many minutes per house, ranging from under sixty for a 1 ? bedroom apartment, to two hundred or more for a multi-bathroom. ” (Ehrenreich, pg. 77) Despite the strict formalization, the culture of The Maids organization is a very strong one. The Maids are very dedicated to their main goal of cleaning the home.
So dedicated in fact that Ehrenreich even describes the motivation she has after one maid becomes sick. “For the first time in my life as a maid I have a purpose more compelling than trying to meet the aesthetic standards of the New England bourgeoisie. I will do the work of two people, if necessary three. ” (Ehrenreich, pg. 97) They are also so dedicated that they are willing to “work through” a sprained ankle, physical sickness, and mental sickness all in order to complete their main goal of providing a clean house.
It’s odd; however, that The Maids are so loyal to Ted, but Ted provides few incentives to the employees besides the free breakfast. In fact Ted doesn’t even use any Rites of Enhancement. For example when Pauline, who has been on the job longer than anyone else, has to leave due to knee surgery, Ted does nothing. He doesn’t provide any sort of public recognition for Pauline’s work accomplished in her two years. The identity The Maids try to portray is interesting. Since the franchise is owned and operated by the franchise, Ted has little say in this department.
Like the Hearthside, The Maids also have uniforms to convey that sort of “oneness” to customers. They also drive a very distinct vehicle to define themselves from other organizations. According to their website, “When you hire The Maids Home Services, you can expect the healthiest, most thorough professional house cleaning available. We pride ourselves on going above and beyond what other house cleaning services offer to provide you with a home that sparkles and shines from ceiling to floor, bathroom to kitchen! (The Maids website, 2009, para 1) They also try to provide an identity that the employees are “uniformed and professionally trained teams” or that they’re a “professional residential cleaning service you can trust”. (The Maids website, 2009, para 2) No where in their website does it say employees are over worked or under paid. I suppose that would detract from the “squeaky clean” identity they are going for. After turning in her uniform at The Maids, Barbara moves west to Minneapolis, Minnesota, which is said to have one of the most thriving businesses in the United States. City of Minneapolis Website, 2009) It is here she applies for work for the biggest corporation in the United States, Wal-Mart. After passing the personality and drug tests, Barbara is in and ready to work. Contrary to her expectations, she learns that Minnesota will prove to be her biggest struggle yet. Much like the Hearthside and The Maids, Wal-Mart, too, is based of the organizational structure of a hierarchy. The main difference among each being the amount of levels, Wal-Mart by far has the most levels of the three. Along with have a hierarchy; Wal-Mart also utilizes a differentiation and specialization type of organizational structure.
For example, Wal-Mart is composed of several different departments: Women’s, Children’s, Appliances, Groceries, and Men’s. Now to touch on the hierarchy structure, each of Wal-Mart’s departments also has a manager of that department who oversees and controls that department and the employees working within that department. Then there is an assistant manager that supersedes and monitors these employees. Above all of these employees there is a manager that supervises all functions of that particular store, including the assistant manager.
Above the manager, there are several area supervisors and eventually corporate headquarters, which have complete power over all stores. (This is a brief description to give an example of the organizational structure and there are probably several other levels) Of course like the Hearthside and The Maids, Wal-Mart also relies on a certain amount of formalization for their livelihood. For example the Women’s department must be rotated three times a week or the shirts hung on shelves must be organized by a certain color scheme. The culture of Wal-Mart is very unique.
The employees have a certain language though which they bond and communicate. Customers are referred to as “guests” and organization and the cleaning up of clothes within the departments is referred to as “zoning”. The organizational culture within this organization could be considered fairly weak. Everyone within the organization has a different view as to what their goals are. Barbara considers her main goal at Wal-Mart to be keeping the department clean and organized. Barbara describes her role at Wal-Mart “…they’re (clothes) mine to organize and rule over. “…the last thing I want to see is a customer riffling disturbing the place. ” (Ehrenreich, pg. 166) However, a manager or other associate may view they’re goal as providing quality service to the customer. Wal-Mart’s Rites of Degradation are interesting. Basically when one person is terminated or leaves the organization, they are replaced immediately, with no remorse or regret. “…there’s a dozen new people coming in for orientation everyday. ” (Ehrenreich, pg. 184) Wal-Mart tries to portray an identity of low prices while “living better”.
Wal-Mart identifies themselves by their locations, their name, their products (typically Wal-Mart sells lower quality products for cheaper), and by the people they hire (the people Wal-Mart hires must pass a prescreening employee test and a drug test). Typically people recognize Wal-Mart by the smiley face and the blue color scheme. Again like the Hearthside and The Maids, Wal-Mart employees use uniforms composed of blue or often-times different colors or with different buttons to signify management. The same design of the uniforms provides a certain amount of “sameness” or “oneness” in order to define their identity.
After unsuccessfully trying to make it in Minnesota, Barbara packs up and heads home to her middle class dwelling, meanwhile leaving with a sort of accomplishment, but yet with some feelings of sadness. She leaves maintaining that low wage work does require a certain set of skills and urging people to rethink the amount of money companies’ use compensate their employees for what many call “unskilled labor”. But was Ehrenreich’s argument persuasive? The answer is absolutely! Her evidence is very effective. How much more effective can it be when you are actually living in the shoes?
Ehrenreich provides very effective evidence by describing in detail each organization’s structure and culture. Her evidence becomes appropriate when she applies actual research to her theories. It becomes apparent that Barbara has developed into an expert on her subject. One thing Barbara could have done in order to live better under these conditions would be having a room-mate, this would have made it easier to split costs. Obviously one major thing that would have been interesting point would have been the effect globalization has had on low wage work.
It would be interesting to see if this may have lowered the amount of jobs or made more jobs available. All and all, Barbara does an excellent job in challenging people to think about the amount America is paying employees for what some call “unskilled” work. Ehrenreich allows us to take a peek inside the low wage work. What we discover is most of the jobs she worked at used a hierarchy with emphasis on formalization. The cultures of the low wage organization are usually fairly strong with the biggest detriments being management and most of the low wage workers encountered were willing to put their all into achieving a certain goal.
Employees within the low wage industries were also willing to identify with their organizations by applying the companies objectives and goals to their frame of mind. Sadly, the employers never seemed to realize the efforts of their employees, rather they only reap the benefits. And what’s even sadder, children are now growing up realizing a different American dream, than our forefathers and this dream does not involve hard work and a richer and fuller life for everyone. Works Cited: Banner, D. , ; Gagne, T. (1995). Designing Effective Organizations. Thousand Oaks, California: SAGE Publications, Inc. .
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The Best Maid Service – Period. Retrieved March 25, 2009, from The Maids Home Service Web site: http://www. maids. com/ Floridakeys ; Keywest, (2005). Welcome to Key West Paradise. Retrieved March 22, 2009, from Keywest Paradise Web site: http://www. keywest. com/ Mcfarlin , D. (2002). Strong culture can be ‘double-edged sword’. Retrieved March 23, 2009, from Dayton Business Journal Web site: http://www. bizjournals. com/dayton/stories/2002/10/14/smallb3. html McNamara, C. (2008). Organizational Culture. Retrieved March 23, 2009, from Free Management Library Web site: http://managementhelp. org/org_thry/culture/culture. htm