The vanishing 9-to-5 job

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

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.

"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."

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

"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.

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