Ehrenreich begins her book by discussing her preparations for her endeavor. The idea is to enter the low-wage workforce for a period of time as a way of investigating poverty in the age of welfare reform. “How does anyone live on the wages available to the unskilled?” Ehrenreich asks. “How, in particular, [are] the roughly four million women about to booted into the labor market by welfare reform going to make it on $6 or $7 an hour?” In the vein of a scientist conducting an experiment, Ehrenreich resolves to find out for herself, adopting a few rules and limitations—no hunger, no homelessness, no relying on skills derived from her usual work, access to a car, whether her own or a Rent-a-Wreck paid for by her credit card—and beginning her journey in Key West, Florida.
She settles in a $500-a-month “efficiency” and starts scouring the want ads. Though she tries to steer clear of waitressing, that is exactly where she winds up—serving tables at a restaurant called Hearthside, attached to a big discount chain hotel. The job is from 2:00 to 10:00pm for $2.43 plus tips.
After only a few days on the job, major problems arise. First, management is oppressive. Stu, the restaurant’s assistant manager, watches for any evidence of relaxation and is constantly on employees’ cases, assigning trivial duties and making sure everyone is working—even when the place is nearly void of customers. Phillip, the top manager, lectures employees as though they were third graders, demeaning them with threats of unannounced locker searches and railing against employee “gossiping”. Second, the job doesn’t pay enough for Ehrenreich to cover her costs. The latter problem is a deal-breaker: Ehrenreich must find a second job to supplement her income. Hoping to find work as a housekeeper, she winds up in yet another waitressing outfit—this time at Jerry’s, attached to a budget hotel and more crowded and popular than Hearthside.
Jerry’s is an exhausting workplace, and soon the primary problem becomes fatigue. Ehrenreich must work from 8:00am to 2:00pm at Jerry’s, then from 2:10pm to 10:00pm at Hearthside. Before long she is struggling to stay awake and mobile. She quits Hearthside, but still exhaustion looms at Jerry’s, and she starts taking ibuprofens to ease a stress injury in her upper back. Her “saving human connection” is a nineteen year-old dishwasher from the Czech Republic named George. He has only been in the U.S. for a week, and Ehrenreich decides to teach him English.
Meanwhile, she moves from her efficiency to a trailer closer to Key West, to cut down on driving, and finally lands a job as a housekeeper—only to discover it’s even more hellish than waitressing, with nineteen hotel rooms cleaned in a single day. Back at Jerry’s, George is accused of stealing from the storage room, meaning he will surely lose his job and may even be sent back to the Czech Republic.
Through with low-wage work in Key West, Ehrenreich bails out and moves to Portland, Maine. To her disappointment, finding good wages is just as difficult there as in Key West, as is finding affordable housing. The average rate for low-wage jobs is $6-$7 an hour, as in Florida, and Ehrenreich encounters several dead-end accommodations before settling on the Blue Haven Motel. It seems like a nice place, and shortly thereafter Ehrenreich secures a position as a “dietary aide” at a nursing home called the Woodcrest Residential Facility for $7 an hour and a spot at a housecleaning service called The Maids for $6.65 an hour. Things seem to be going according to plan.
Ehrenreich’s supervisor at Woodcrest is a kindly woman named Linda, who shows her what the job consists of. In short, Ehrenreich must feed the residents when they arrive for breakfast, then wash the dishes afterwards. Through this process, the ward’s cook—Pete—exerts a great deal of power over Ehrenreich’s and other dietary aides’ workloads. For this reason, Ehrenreich makes a point of befriending him and telling him she is single.
Next comes The Maids. Training lasts a day and a half and consists primarily of watching videotapes detailing the cleaning process. The key, Ehrenreich discovers, is to make places look clean—even if they are not in fact clean. After training, work begins. It’s exhausting. The maids—all of whom seem desperately poor—must shuttle from house to house at breakneck speed and make only a fraction of the $25 per person-hour The Maids charges its customers. Ted, the franchise owner, is a tyrant who blames lockouts on employees and tells sick maids to “work through it”. One such sick maid is Holly, a twenty-three-year old to whose team Ehrenreich is assigned. Holly is abnormally pale and thin and never seems to eat much of anything. She eventually reveals she is probably pregnant.
Ehrenreich tries to persuade Holly to go home, but Holly refuses. So Ehrenreich tries to work harder and cut down on Holly’s duties. The result? Ehrenreich accidentally drops a pot into a fishbowl in a fancy home.
Meanwhile, her money is running out. She’s had to resort to medications for a rash she has developed at The Maids, and the Blue Haven Motel is more expensive than she thought it would be. To make matters worse, she finds herself forced one day to cover the entire Alzheimer’s ward at Woodcrest herself—a near-calamity caused by another dietary aide’s not showing up to work.
The troubles come to a head when Holly trips in a hole on the job and seems to break a bone. She refuses to go the emergency room and calls Ted, apologizing in tears. Ehrenreich blows up in outrage at Ted, then lashes out at her fellow employees. The latter is an outburst she deeply regrets. She resolves to quit, and reveals her identity to the other maids. The result is, in a word, anticlimactic.
The final leg of Ehrenreich’s journey is Minnesota. Once again, Ehrenreich harbors hopes of finding a more comfortable situation—and, once again, those hopes are dashed. In this case, Ehrenreich finds it next to impossible to find proper affordable housing. She winds up at the Clearview Inn, which she likens to the worst motel in the world. She feels unsafe and exposed, and shortly after her move the rent goes up. After a few more dead ends, Ehrenreich lands a room at the Comfort Inn—but she must pay a whopping $49.95 a night to stay there. This model won’t last her long either.
Meanwhile, Ehrenreich manages to secure positions at both Wal-Mart and Menards (a houseware store). After a grueling eight-hour orientation session at Wal-Mart, however, Ehrenreich feels too exhausted to make it to her morning shift at Menards and bails. Wal-Mart becomes her only workplace—and with its “unctuous service ethic”, railing assistant manager, and demeaning philosophy, it soon inspires a great deal of hostility in Ehrenreich. Once the housing situation looks to be lose-lose and Ehrenreich hears news of a hotel workers’ strike, she begins covertly spreading the word around Wal-Mart, knowing her days as an employee there are numbered anyway.
Ehrenreich concludes her book, having been forced by finances out of Minneapolis as well, by evaluating her own performance—“I didn’t do half-bad at the work itself,” she writes, “but my track record in the survival department is far less admirable”—and imploring fellow Americans to wake up to the “emergency” of post-welfare-reform poverty. “Something is wrong, very wrong,” Ehrenreich argues in what could be considered her book’s thesis statement, “when a single person in good health, a person who in addition possesses a working car, can barely support herself by the sweat of her brow.”