I Was a Middle-Aged Wage Slave

Life at $6.15 an hour in a telephone boiler room. 

The opening piece of advice from my supervisor was this: “I recommend that you don’t use your real name.” Next he gave us packets of alcohol swabs to disinfect our equipment. “It’s so unsanitary,” he shuddered. Then he cautioned us: “You will deal with some of the nicest people in the world. You will also talk to people for whom the darkest corner of hell isn’t dark enough.” This was the first night at my new job. I had just been hired to do telephone surveys for a company I’ll call Annoy America. I would be making the minimum wage.

Congress is now negotiating a $1 raise to the $5.15-an-hour minimum wage. Time magazine recently scoffed that such a move is essentially symbolic since “almost no one is working for minimum wage these days.” Of course not, we’re all billionaires! Except for the 10 million or so people who forgot to get their Time Warner stock package and now work for $6.15 an hour or less. These aren’t just teen-agers flipping burgers so they can buy navel rings. According to the Economic Policy Institute, 70 percent of these people are over 20 years old, and almost half work full-time.

When I called the number listed in the Washington Post employment ad (“Telephone Interviewers”), I was given an address and told to show up at the office the following Thursday evening for a group interview. The office was long and narrow, filled with rows of cubicles, about 30 of them. In each sat a person wearing a headset hunched over a computer. There was a murmuring of random, canned phrases: “Would you say that makes you more likely or less likely?” “Do you feel extremely confident, very confident, somewhat confident?” “Do you own a gun?” “Do you agree or disagree that creationism should be taught in the schools?”

I was directed to a room where there were about a dozen of us, mostly young black people, professionally dressed as if they were arriving from another job. We filled out standard applications (education, work experience, references). To a question about the references, the interviewer said, “Don’t worry. I don’t think we’ve ever called anyone’s references.”

The interviewer told us we would call all over the country doing surveys on everything from the presidential race to what kind of paper towels people used. She warned us about two kinds of people: those who were “rude, rude, rude” (at Annoy America there was a sort of corporate amnesia over the fact that most people consider strangers who call them at home to be rude, rude, rude), and old people who wouldn’t let us off the phone.

She handed out stapled employee manuals and then told us that the work hours were evenings from 5:45 p.m. until 11—at 9:45 we would start calling the West Coast. We had to work at least one weekend shift, and the minimum number of hours per week was 16. We would be paid $6.15 an hour (the District of Columbia’s minimum wage is $1 above federal requirements). But if we made a graveyard shift—a weekend evening—part of our permanent schedule, we would make an additional 25 cents per hour. “It’s an incentive,” she explained. We would get a 15-minute dinner break, but we were asked not to leave the building except to smoke. One man, about 30, said he had a day job and he couldn’t work until 11. “Oh come on, a big macho guy like you,” said our interviewer. The man put down his manual and left.

To screen applicants, the boss had us read aloud in turn from the manual. “You are about to embark on one of the most interesting and important types of work in the world today: survey research.” “Rapport is a French word that has no real English equivalent.” “The respondent will lose track of time and enjoy the process.” If I had brought a baked potato with me, it would have gotten the job, too, because when we finished reading, we were all asked how soon we could start. One young woman said she didn’t want to work the following Monday because she and her fiance had a special evening planned. She was taking this job, she explained, to pay for their wedding. One word immediately sprang to mind: Elope.

I started two nights later. Instead of punching a time clock, we checked in for work and out for breaks at a main computer. Then I was told to go into a conference room with about 16 other employees to be briefed on our assignment for the night. The group was equally divided by sex, race, and age. The people under 25 were almost all black, many carrying college textbooks. The people over 50 were almost all white. Actually they were gray, from their hair to their pallor to their clothes. While we waited for a supervisor, the atmosphere in the room was that of an oversize elevator: No one made eye contact, no one spoke.

Our assignment was to survey registered voters about a Southern mayoral race. The poll consisted of 18 questions, everything from who they planned to vote for for president to “How safe do you feel walking in your neighborhood at night? a) very safe; b) somewhat safe; c) somewhat unsafe; d) very unsafe.” Then the supervisor, X, took us to our cubicles, told us to use fake names—I decided to call myself Natalie Lerner—and recommended we clean our headsets. X was one of three supervisors on duty for 30 employees. I wished my local public school had a similar ratio.

I started calling. A computer-generated stream of phone numbers appeared on my screen. When someone actually answered the phone, I hit another key, and my script appeared. Just a few nights working the phone makes you realize America’s evenings move to a precise rhythm:

5:45 to 6:30: Answering machine.

6:30 to 7:15: Kids screaming.

7:15 to 8:30: “We’re in the middle of dinner.”

8:30 to 9:45: Answering machine.

As soon as I got half a sentence into my spiel, about 25 percent of the people simply hung up on me. Amazingly, an equal number said this wasn’t a good time but agreed I could call back. One woman said, “Natalie, I can’t talk now because …” I didn’t hear her reason because I was too busy wondering, “Who the hell is Natalie?”

I began to feel a little like I was playing the slots in Atlantic City: I had entered a timeless zone where I engaged in a repetitive task hoping for a big score. Finally, a hit. An elderly woman didn’t hang up when I kept talking. I ran into trouble on one of the first questions, however. She claimed to be a registered voter but was not a Democrat or Republican and wasn’t sure what an independent was. I was about to hit “Don’t Know” when supervisor Y—who had been listening in—came running over to my cubicle and whispered furiously that I had to pin her down. However, all I could do was repeat the question on the screen in front of me because I was expressly forbidden to deviate from the script. The woman finally agreed she was an independent.

The supervisors were constantly active. We could see by the lights on our phone consoles that they were listening in, and at any slip, they were by our side. When my neighbor said to someone who didn’t immediately hang up on her, “Would you like to participate in the survey?” supervisor X came running over. “Never, never ask them if they want to continue. They’ll say, ‘no.’ It’s like throwing raw meat to wolves.”

My next night at work was the final session for the mayoral race. Although the first night we had been instructed to try to get men to answer the survey (“It’s harder to get males, women are used to connecting more,” explained Y), tonight we needed only women. My request to talk to the youngest woman in the house—people who agree to be interviewed tend to be old—yielded responses from the rueful to the outraged. One man said, “There’s no female in this house. I wish there was.” Another replied, “I’ve got a 44-year-old, a 45-year-old, and a 69-year-old. None of them are here. I’m microwaving my own dinner!”

Around 8, I went to the conference room for my 15-minute break. I sat down next to a plump 50-ish woman who had her dinner laid out on the table: six varieties of candy bars. She told me that she had been moonlighting at Annoy for two years. She had a full-time day job with a local government. “I’ve worked two jobs my whole life,” she said. “I only sleep three and a half hours a night.” I let my dinner break run to 19 minutes and when I returned to the computer to punch in, it admonished me, “You’re late! Please be on time.”

Over the course of the two nights, I dialed 210 phone numbers and completed five interviews. When I left work, one of the questions on the survey seemed apt. I realized I felt, “c) somewhat unsafe” walking home at night. I hailed a cab. The ride took about three minutes and cost $4, in other words, 40 minutes of dialing.

Night 3 I was assigned to the dreaded, “Will You Be Prepared When You Retire” survey—a look at how people earning more than $150,000 are saving for their retirement. The inherent problem in the survey was that it required persuading people making more than $150,000 to answer a 30-question survey on their financial dealings from a stranger making minimum wage. And recently, said Y, shaking her head, the company paying for the survey decided they wanted 900 completed interviews instead of 600.

I swabbed my headset with alcohol and started dialing. Very few people listened to the end of my introduction, “Hello, I’m Natalie Lerner from … doing a short survey on a vital topic … will you be prepared … absolutely confidential … interviewing influential people.” In my first hour of calls, only one person even let me finish. When I did, she said, “I’m not influential” and hung up. Amazingly, at 6:45 I got a business owner and at 7:10 a sales manager willing to do the almost 20-minute survey. Afterward, two supervisors called me in. Overall I got an “A,” but they went over a number of mistakes I made, such as hitting the key for “extremely concerned” when my sales manager was only “very concerned” about making the right investment decisions.

I went back to the phones. It took two more hours before I convinced someone to do another interview. While I dialed, a woman from the cleaning crew began vacuuming the hall, making me feel grateful that I only had to sit in the little cubicle. At 9:45, when we start calling the West Coast, the older woman one seat down said she was worried about what time we would get out. Her trip required a subway and a bus transfer. Last night she just missed the bus and so had to wait 40 minutes for the next one, getting home around 1 a.m. “It’s dangerous out there,” she said.

The college student next to me, who used the names of his football teammates as a revolving pseudonym, finally completed an interview. Before he hung up, he said, “Thank you, thank you, you’re my only one for the whole night.” Then at 10:46, the supervisors walked up and down the rows telling us we could go home. By the time I got to the main computer to check out at 10:48, the office was deserted. I decided that was my last night. I had worked for 13.6 hours, dialed 370 phone numbers, and completed 13 interviews. My take-home pay was $77.24.

When I got out to the street, there was an older woman from the office, who walked with a heavy limp, already hailing a cab. When she got in, I hoped her trip was a short one.

Some minor identifying details were changed in this story.