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: