As overtime builds, workers balk

Recent strikes, including the one this week at Verizon, point to employees' growing disaffection with extra hours.

Mason Myers spends 11 hours a day at the office. Some nights he has business dinners; other nights he answers e-mails from home. He almost always works several hours each weekend.

"It wears on me sometimes," says this Boston Internet exec. "If I had a family, I probably wouldn't work those fringe hours."

In America's high-tech office parks, it's understood that overtime comes with the job. But the racing US economy is driving even Old Economy employers - from healthcare to manufacturing to air travel - to demand longer hours from workers.

Now, with no let up in sight, all the overtime is starting to wear thin. It's become a hot-button issue for United Airlines, which was forced this week to cancel thousands of future flights after pilots refused to work more extra hours. And it's one of the sticking points in the current strike on the East Coast at Verizon Communications.

"Workers are starting to make [mandatory overtime] a priority, and I don't see an end to it unless the economy cools down," says Lonnie Golden, an economist at Penn State University Delaware County. "We've plateaued at a new high."

Already, Americans clock more hours at work - 45 a week - than any other people on the globe. They surpassed the Japanese in 1998. While overtime has helped the economy produce goods and services at a record level, it is also adding to workers' difficulties as they try to balance work and family commitments.

"Ask any kid how many baseball games their moms and dads have been to this summer and the answer is not many," says Paul Feeney, a telephone technician striking against Verizon at a protest this week in Boston.

During the busy season - late summer and early fall - he works between 15 and 20 hours of mandatory overtime each week. "We understand that emergencies happen and overtime is necessary," he says, "but they have to keep it under control."

The overtime backlash may be hitting now because workers feel they're near a breaking point. Over the past 20 years, US work hours have increased steadily, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. In manufacturing, overtime averages 4.6 hours a week, but can be as high as 6 hours in sectors such as automobiles, steel, and petroleum. Overtime is even higher in managerial, professional, and high-tech sectors, which are harder to quantify because they're salaried jobs.

So far, companies haven't added to their workforces to ease the crunch - either because new hires cost more to train or because employers can't find workers in this tight labor market.

"The orders keep rolling in, and employers are much more reluctant than in previous economic expansions to hire additional workers," says Mr. Golden. "It is seen as a last resort instead of the first."

Healthcare professionals are among the hardest hit, because the industry requires highly skilled workers 24 hours a day, seven days a week, says Kay Hodge, a labor and employment lawyer on the management side. While she stresses that her clients abide by the law, some employers may find the cost of recruiting, hiring, and training new workers "too prohibitive, so they begin to shave corners."

With the severe worker shortage in nursing, overtime is becoming a battleground for angry, tired nurses.

Sandy Ellis, a psychiatric nurse at Worcester Medical Center in Massachusetts, was among those who went on strike this spring when their employer wanted them to work an extra eight-hour shift when needed. After six weeks, they struck a deal that limits mandatory overtime to no more than four additional hours twice every three months.

She says forcing nurses to work back-to-back shifts puts nurses and patients at risk. "By 7 a.m., I am so tired I can barely make it home. What would I be like if I had to work until 3 p.m.? And what would happen to my family?"

Ms. Ellis is married with two young daughters. Each evening, she puts her kids to bed, grabs a few hours of sleep, and then works from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. three nights a week. She gets home with enough time to get her kids off to school before grabbing a few more hours' sleep. It's a hard schedule, but it allows her to be home with her children during the day. "The beauty of nursing is there are those kinds of shifts and hours that support family values," she says. "Forcing us to work double shifts would have significantly altered that."

As Americans work more, they are clamoring for more-flexible schedules. Indeed, people who work 50 hours a week or more already keep less rigid schedules, says Golden, who studied the issue in collaboration with the Economic Policy Institute.

Of course, workers haven't always balked at overtime. Until recently, earnings lagged behind inflation, and many US households carried loads of debt. As a result, workers were volunteering for overtime or taking second jobs.

But "now that wages are rising, people want their lives back," Golden says.

Some economists, though, expect that Americans will continue to work longer hours - no matter the economy. As the workforce becomes more skilled and better educated, people are moving into jobs that are not as tedious as those in manufacturing, says Barry Bluestone of the Center for Urban and Regional Policy at Northeastern University in Boston. "As ... people get less onerous jobs, the better the chance they will work more hours," he says, "even if the economy continues to be strong."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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