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The vanishing 9-to-5 job

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

(Page 2 of 2)

These limited hours carry a price: no benefits, no certainty.

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"It almost feels like we're day laborers," Eaton says. "I call in and ask, 'Do you have any hours?' "

Many of those on rotating shifts attend college, serve as caregivers, or hold a second job, Henly says. "Very few get fired. They leave voluntarily. That makes them ineligible for unemployment benefits."

Unpredictable shifts are the second biggest reason employees quit, after salary concerns, says Jo Prabhu, CEO of International Services Group, a placement firm in Long Beach, Calif.

A life 'flipped around'

When a college student in Denver took a job as a switchboard operator at a hotel chain, she began on the evening shift, which she liked. But that didn't last. "One time I had to work eight days in a row," says the student, who does not want to be identified for criticizing a former employer. "Another time I worked Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday from 3:30 p.m. to midnight. Then I had to come back at 7 a.m. Saturday and Sunday." After a month of being "flipped around," she left and found a job with a consistent schedule.

Some people like variable schedules. Jill Sailors, an assistant professor at St. Louis College of Pharmacy, works part-time as a pharmacist in a "floater" position when full-time staff members are absent.

"Anytime a shift comes open that they need to fill, they call me," says Ms. Sailors, the mother of two children. "I'm willing to work 2 to 6 p.m., or 6 to 10 p.m. I ask them to find another floater, and we split the shift." Unless floaters average 32 hours a week, they receive no benefits.

Rotating shifts and shorter shifts are becoming more common, Ms. Prabhu says, as more companies limit shifts to 20 hours a week to avoid paying benefits. "All industries are trying to have reduced hours. You could be given an erratic shift that could be four hours a day, three days a week. If you don't comply, your job will be offered to someone who will comply."

Ms. Presser anticipates cutbacks in evening and night jobs. "The auto industry very disproportionately uses nonstandard work schedules," she says. "Some retail stores are staying open longer hours but cutting back staff and pushing people to work longer hours. Banks are also cutting back on hours. In that sense nonstandard hours will be on the decline."

Yet some employers are growing concerned about productivity and high turnover, notes Henly. As one solution, she is helping a national retailer devise more predictable schedules. Supervisors now post rotating shifts on Wednesday for Sunday. The result is fewer child-care disruptions and more family time.

Some companies give wage premiums for evening or night work, Heymann says. That encourages people without children to volunteer for those hours. "When parents do need to take those shifts, they have more resources and a greater ability to pay for child care."

She tells of one American factory that takes a family-friendly approach by starting one line at 6 a.m. and others at 7, 8, and 9 a.m. "Parents have some choice," Heymann says.

Vogel-Miller's choice would be a daytime shift. "I'd rather spend the evening with the children than an hour while they're getting ready for school," she says.