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The vanishing 9-to-5 job

Fewer workers have steady weekday schedules, posing challenges on the job and at home.

By Marilyn GardnerStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / December 8, 2008

Scott Wallace


Sheila Mae Vogel-Miller has learned a lot about flexibility during her four years as a certified nursing assistant at a hospital in Hot Springs, Mont.

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"I've worked about every shift you can imagine," says Mrs. Vogel-Miller. "When people quit or go on maternity leave, we get moved around."

That kind of unpredictable moving around from shift to shift – days, evenings, nights, weekends – is becoming more common as companies look for ways to cut labor costs. In a 24/7 world, finding a steady 9-to-5, Monday-to-Friday schedule poses a growing challenge for workers in healthcare, retail, hospitality, transportation, and financial services. Shifts, days, and even the number of hours change, often with little notice.

"Employers increasingly demand flexibility," says Julia Henly, a social-work professor at the University of Chicago. "Open availability is often a key qualification more than education."

Forty percent of employees in the United States work the majority of their hours outside standard daytime schedules, Professor Henly says. That produces consequences at home.

"Parents spend fewer hours with their families, and it's hard to attend school activities," says Henly. "Family budgeting is also hard, because nobody guarantees a certain number of hours. It's common to be sent home early or be asked to stay longer."

Although unpredictable shifts have some positive aspects – more care by fathers, for instance – the quality of marriage is generally lower for couples with nonstandard hours, says Harriet Presser, a sociologist at the University of Maryland. In addition, parents' evening work can negatively affect children's education, says Jody Heymann, author of "Forgotten Families."

Nighttime child care conflicts

For many families, the greatest challenge is scheduling child care. This can involve complicated arrangements, often with more than one provider.

"Rotating shifts are one of the biggest issues confronting child care today," says Linda Smith, executive director of the National Association of Child Care Resource and Referral Agencies in Arlington, Va. "The formal system of child care is not meeting the needs of the workforce. Centers operate from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. That's not the reality of many people's lives. It's forcing families to use care outside of regulated care. Grandparents are rearranging their own work schedules and lives. It's very patchwork."

For workers like Vogel-Miller, whose blended family includes seven daughters and stepdaughters, variable shifts make child care "always challenging." She and her husband typically rely on friends and family members.

Another mother, Jamie Eaton, a licensed practical nurse with a 2-1/2-year-old son, has only been able to find an on-call job at a nursing home in her small town near Cincinnati. Shifts vary. "They'll call at 7 a.m. and say, 'Can you work a 12-hour shift tonight?' " says Ms. Eaton. "I have to tell them I can't, because I don't have a baby sitter then."