This week, The Simple Dollar is conducting a detailed review of Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed. This title is a bit of an unusual choice for a review of personal finance books, as it details an educated and affluent woman’s attempt to get by while working at low-income jobs. Can we learn anything from this noble experiment? Let’s find out.
In the second portion of Nickel and Dimed, Barbara takes a job in Maine as a maid, cleaning the homes of the affluent as an employee of a home cleaning service. The job is labor-intensive, doesn’t pay well, and is fraught with potential injury issues, but the job holds even more disconcerting elements.
The first red flag raised is the inherent distrust of the working class by the affluent. Many of the people who hire cleaning services are clearly distrustful and disdainful of the workers that actually provide this service to them. They leave obvious “traps” (such as money sitting out with video cameras trained on it) in order to catch dishonest employees and leave borderline crazy instructions for cleaning their property, but even when the workers show themselves up to the challenge by being honest and forthright in their duties, the homeowners still treat them with great disdain. This merely causes the workers to do nothing more than resent the affluent, which does little more than cause the workers to do suboptimal work in the house because of the way they were treated.
This begs the question: how should people treat service industry workers? I tend to tip well if a strong service is provided to me in a restaurant and I often show additional gratitude when other service providers (such as secretaries, janitors, and so forth) perform what I need them to with speed, quality, and accuracy. A simple show of appreciation goes a long way in cementing a strong relationship with people who provide services for you. For example, at my previous job I used to give the janitor a birthday gift and would (every once in a while) bring a leftover meal from home and give to him. In return, my office was impeccably cleaned almost every evening and the bathroom on my floor was always pristine, while other offices and restrooms were perfunctorily cleaned at best. The simple fact is that tipping and respect of service workers pays dividends.
Another aspect of this general problem is “injury of the spirit;” in other words, when the reward to excel is minimal, why bother trying to excel? One could argue that the feeling you get from a well-completed task is reward enough, but how does that apply to an individual making less than a liveable wage? For that matter, how does that really apply to anyone? The maids in this chapter are instructed to simply “make it look good,” and there is absolutely no incentive to them to do anything more than that, even though they realize that, for example, scrubbing floors with only a tiny bit of water doesn’t actually clean the floor.
The lesson of this section is that you should reward service workers when they provide a regular service for you. If you have a home cleaner, leave that person a tip or a gift once in a while; if a secretary at work constantly solves your problems, leave a flower (or a similar gift) and a card for them. The service industry is often underpaid for the work they do, and showing them that you appreciate and value their work can do nothing but make your own life easier and better.
Tomorrow, I’ll address the final section of the book, which revolves around Barbara’s work at chain retailers in Minnesota.
Nickel and Dimed is the third of fifty-two books in The Simple Dollar’s series 52 Personal Finance Books in 52 Weeks.