Ehrenreich moves to Maine next because of the large number of white, English-speaking people in the low-wage work-force, where she notes there is an abundance of work available. Ehrenreich begins her stay in a Motel 6, which becomes her base from which to seek employment and more-permanent housing. Ehrenreich learns about housing in Old Orchard Beach for $65 a week. However, when she sees the deplorable, probably illegal living conditions, she decides to pass. After numerous disappointing attempts to secure housing, Ehrenreich finds a cottage for $120 a week and decides to take it. She realizes if she spent more time looking she may have found something cheaper, but she could not afford to continue paying $59 a night for a hotel room.
Ehrenreich applies for many jobs in warehouse and nursing- home work, manufacturing, and even at Goodwill. She encounters more “opinion surveys,” which try to gauge her potential as an employee. She is surprised to learn that jobs in Portland do not pay any better than in Key West. She finds this startling because logic holds that if the supply of labor is low relative to demand, wages should rise. Yet, this is not the case. Ehrenreich gets a job at “Merry Maids,” a house-cleaning service, for $6.65 an hour. She also gets a weekend job at a nursing home for $7 an hour.
Ehrenreich finds that serving the nursing-home patients their meals is easy compared with waitressing in Key West. The worst part is cleaning up after the meals, which involves physically demanding labor. For entertainment, Ehrenreich spends a Saturday night at Deliverance church at a tent revival. When Ehrenreich is finally able to move into her cottage, she notes that it is smaller than she remembers. However, she is a minority in the Blue Haven community because she lives alone. Most people are crowded into the tiny cottages with various family members. During her first day at the maid service, Ehrenreich is subjected to various videos which instruct her in the Merry Maid cleaning methods and rules. She learns, by overhearing, that the maid service charges its customers $25 an hour, although it only pays its employees $6.65 an hour. The average independent cleaning person in the area makes $15 an hour.
The maid work is grueling. The women often clean the homes of wealthy families who have little regard for the back-breaking work the women undertake—only once is Ehrenreich offered a drink. Furthermore, the company demands that women embrace ridiculous cleaning methods, which are not always conducive to cleaning well. For example, they use only three rags throughout the whole house. Ehrenreich does not understand why she must clean floors on her hands and knees when a mop would do the same thing. She also realizes that the 3:30 quitting time she was promised is a myth. She usually does not return to the office until 4:30 or 5:00.
Soon after beginning the maid service job, Ehrenreich gets a terrible rash all over her body. Ehrenreich wonders how Ted will react to her rash, since his motto is “working through it” when it comes to illness. Ted tells her that she must be allergic to the latex gloves and that she will be fine to work. Ehrenreich is so tormented by her rash that she breaks the rules and phones a dermatologist from Key West who calls in a prescription for her. Ehrenreich considers her ability to keep up physically with the other maids who are much younger than she. She realizes that this says less about her than it does about them: she has had a lifetime of healthy eating, good medical care, and exercise. Ehrenreich describes how she has never hired a cleaning service because she finds the idea repugnant. She does not want to have the type of relationship with another human being. She describes, in detail, the many disgusting things she encounters cleaning other people’s homes.
In the fall, Ehrenreich is continuously assigned to Holly’s team. Holly is visibly unwell; she is pale and thin. Ehrenreich suggests that she and Marge, the other woman on the team, take the more demanding tasks on a day when Holly looks particularly ill; Marge does not readily agree. Holly refuses her offer. Holly confides that she thinks she’s pregnant. She has been very weak and did not want to go to work, but her husband made her come. Later, at another house, Ehrenreich drops a pot onto a fishbowl—sending fish, shattered glass, and marbles in every direction. Surprisingly, no one, not even Ted, gets mad.
Ehrenreich continues to glean more lessons about what it’s like to be poor in America. She notices that people in public (grocery stores, convenience stores) are usually repulsed by her when she is dirty from maid work. Ehrenreich encounters a temporary financial set back due to the money she had to pay for her rash medicine and a higher rent than expected for the first week because it was still tourist season. She decides to see what services are available for the poor. Ehrenreich learns that many of the services are only available during working hours, which is not helpful to the working poor. When she finally is able to get assistance, the people she deals with are suspicious and condescending. She obtains a voucher for groceries; though she can only choose from a very limited supply.
One day while cleaning a home, Holly hurts her ankle. Ehrenreich tells Holly that she can’t work on the ankle, but all Holly will do is call Ted. Ehrenreich listens as Holly apologizes to Ted. Ehrenreich takes the phone from Holly and tells Ted that she does not like the way he treats his employees; Ted only tells her to calm down. Holly continues to clean. On the car ride back to the office, Ehrenreich is surprised to learn that the women are not aware of the abundance of jobs available in the area. Ehrenreich inadvertently insults them when she mentions that anyone could pass the test they needed to take to join Merry Maids. She realizes that perhaps possessing the literacy to complete the test is an achievement for some.
Ehrenreich is astounded when Ted does not fire her, but gives her a raise. He apologetically tries to explain that he is not a bad guy. Meanwhile, Pauline sadly tells Ehrenreich that it is her last day, after two years. She is upset that Ted did not say anything about it to her. Ehrenreich wonders why Ted’s approval means so much to the women. On the last day, Ehrenreich “outs” herself as a Ph.D. writing a book. She asks the women how they feel working in rich people’s homes while they barely make enough to survive. One woman says it motivates her to work hard. Another says she does not want that kind of stuff anyhow.
Notes - In this chapter Ehrenreich experiences low-wage work in a community that is virtually all-white and Englishspeaking. She is most surprised to learn that even though there are an abundance of jobs, the wages are the same as in Key West, where fewer jobs are available. Moreover, she is shocked that the women she meets do not realize how easily they could find other employment.
Yet, Ehrenreich makes the important observation that switching jobs is not always feasible in the low-wage world. Many people pay their rent weekly; many jobs hold the first week’s pay; many of the workers she meets have many other people depending on them. An advantage to Ehrenreich’s first-hand experience in the workforce is that she learns how grueling and exhausting the work can be. It is possible that people are simply too tired to look elsewhere for more gainful employment.
Ehrenreich also realizes that much of the assistance available to the poor is controlled by agencies that assume people with low incomes do not work. When she finally is able to find assistance, she is treated unkindly. When she ventures out after work, Ehrenreich also learns how the poor are looked down upon in public places. The reader should be careful to note that while Ehrenreich is recounting information that did take place, she is still reconstructing what happened. Because she did not record the things people said to her she cannot be expected to remember exactly what they said, verbatim. Thus, anytime she presents dialogue it is her version of the conversation and is subject to her memory, her biases, and her agenda. Moreover, Ehrenreich cannot recount everything that happened to her in every place she went. Therefore, she must decide what she thinks is important to tell the reader. Although this book is not a novel (a work of fiction) it is constructed. The reader should pay attention to how Ehrenreich describes the people she meets, what words she places in their mouths, what she chooses to tell us, and what she might possibly be leaving out.