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    Working Poor

    (January 08, 2002) A recent conversation with Steve Pogorzelski, Monster's new president, resulted in a few hours curled up with an interesting new book. Nickel and Dimed, by Barbara Ehrenreich is the saga of a well educated reporter's experiences as she navigates minimum wage jobs in a number of places around the country. It's an easy read and a compelling reminder of the difficulties of life in the underbelly of our economy.

    30% of the workforce spends its time in the never-never land of 'almost making ends meet most of the time' that constitutes life at the bottom of the pile.

    Why hadn't I asked all these questions about wages and hours before? For that matter, why hadn't I bargained with Roberta when she called to tell me that I had passed the drug test -- told her $7 and hour would be fine, as long as the benefits included a free lakeside condo with hot tub? At least part of the answer, I figured out weeks later, lies in the employers deft handling of the hiring process. First you are an applicant and then suddenly, you are an orientee. You're handed the application form and, a few days later, you're being warned against nose rings and stealing. 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 probably would 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.

    The premise of the book stretches thin from time to time as Ms. Ehrenlich's upper middle class tastes and sensibilities cloud the reporting of her adventure. It's the details of others' experiences that make this such an interesting read: a worker saving up to buy a $7 polo shirt off the clearance rack at Wal-Mart so that her (yes) Wal-Mart uniform will be complete, drug testing details and avoidance, choosing between a furnished trailer and a basement apartment, the meaning of a $50 medical expense in the 90 day waiting period for health insurance, the financial rat race, the difference $1,000 in cash makes.

    This is a world that the Internet is not going to reach anytime soon. When $20/month in access fees is the same as a half day's take home pay and a $700 computer is nearly a month's, job hopping, personal development through eLearning and automated job agents are simply not going to make the difference. Tragically, this pool of labor is, in some ways, harder working and more industrious than the other 70% of us. That is unfortunate for a couple of reasons.

    When the labor shortage hits in earnest this year, it will be a sustained pressure that demands several things from employers. A rearrangement of the employment contract (foreshadowed by the success of Salary.com's Personal Salary Report) is in the immediate, near term future. Once that upper middle class question has begun to sort itself out, we will have to concentrate our energies on harvesting talent from the ranks of the working poor. Given the environment described in Nickel and Dimed, that will not be an easy chore. The process of survival. at minimum wage, is exhausting and all consuming. You can nearly imagine a 'minimum wage detox program' that, somehow, selects potential contributors and gives them, first and foremost, the breathing room required to consider other alternatives. 

    With tightened borders and escalating retirements (as we close the chapter on this recession), the demands for growth will have to be met from within our borders.

    Interestingly, the newspaper industry is in the most logical place to make a difference. What's left of the classified advertising business are the endless ads (whether or not there are jobs) for retail, restaurant and other low level service industry positions. Although the concept of accountability between an employer and an applicant is stretched to its absolute thinnest in this demographic, there is room for change. This is one of those places where a newspaper gets to ask itself who its customers really are and what its role in the local economy actually is. We assume, cynically, that the newspapers will continue to focus on the upmarket opportunities (after all, writers, publishers, editors and owners have almost nothing in common with their minimum wage audiences.) That should cause the final dislocation of the classified business as newspapers fight job boards over the ownership of the audience now owned by job boards at the expense of the audience sought by the newspapers' advertisiers.

    For the rest of us who are breathing a sigh of relief that 2001 is behind us, Nickel and Dimed is a sobering reminder that our good fortune just might come at someone else's expense.

    Please read it.

    - John Sumser

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