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California State University, Dominguez Hills
University of Wisconsin, Parkside
Created: June 17, 2004
Latest Update: June 17, 2004
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the economy that never sleeps
the economy that never sleeps
harriet b. presser
Millions of Americans work late shifts and weekends. They make our 24-hour, 7 day-a-week economy possible. But they and their families bear a heavy burden for our all-night markets, overnight deliveries and clean offices. Is it time to help them?
Forty percent of the American labor force works mostly during nonstandard times--in the evenings, overnight, on rotating or variable shifts, or on weekends. These schedules challenge American families, particularly those with children. Research suggests that such schedules undermine the stability of marriages, increase the amount of housework to be done, reduce family cohesiveness, and require elaborate child-care arrangements.
Nonstandard work schedules also have some benefits. Most notably, when fathers and mothers work different shifts, fathers and children typically spend more time together and child care costs less. Parents of school-aged children who work late shifts can see their children off to school and welcome them home. However, the advantages and disadvantages of nonstandard work hours are not evenly distributed. Some kinds of families and workers feel the downside more than others. And all off-hour workers and families need more attention than they are now getting.
Late and rotating work shifts are certainly not new. Some people have always worked at all hours of the day and night. While official data on which hours people work have only recently become available, in recent decades the number of people working nonstandard schedules seems to have increased. A central factor is the remarkable growth of the service economy--particularly in the food, recreation, travel and medical care industries--all of which require more round-the-clock employees than does manufacturing. Consumers are clamoring for continuously available services as well. We see these trends in the newly common phrase "24/7" and in the extension of store hours. Indeed, the 7-Eleven convenience stores, once considered unusual for opening at 7 a.m. and closing at 11 p.m., are anachronistically named: almost all of them are now open around the clock.
At the same time, families themselves are changing. With the growth of female employment, spouses increasingly both work. Also, increasingly many employed mothers are single parents. The "Ozzie and Harriet" family--in which the father works outside the home full time and the mother is a full-time homemaker--has become more and more of an exception. Although we have belatedly come to acknowledge this change, we still tend to think of employed parents as working in the daytime and home with their children in the evening and at night. This remains the case for most parents, but not for a substantial minority.
With more employed mothers--married or single--and more diverse work schedules, the rhythm of family life is changing for millions of Americans. We need to discuss whether employers and government can and should do more to ease the social and physical stresses that many families experience. Moreover, employees need to be aware of the risks of working late and rotating hours so that they can make more informed decisions before accepting such a job--assuming, of course, they have a genuine choice in the matter.
who works nonstandard schedules?
Nonstandard work schedules are surprisingly common. One out of five employed Americans work most of their hours outside the range of 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., or have a regularly rotating schedule. Many more work at least some of their hours in the evenings or at night. About one-third of employed Americans work Saturday, Sunday or both. Men are somewhat more likely than women to work nonstandard schedules, and minorities--particularly blacks--are more likely to do so than non-Hispanic whites. (These estimates are based on a large, representative national sample in 1997. More recent numbers, not yet fully analyzed, suggest little change since then.)
Dual-earner married couples are especially likely to have at least one spouse working late or rotating shifts. In 1997, this was so for 28 percent of all such couples, but even more so for those with children: 35 percent of dual-earner couples with a child under 5 had a parent with such a schedule. (Rarely did both spouses work such schedules.) These percentages are yet higher among low-income couples, the families most likely to be under financial stress while juggling a difficult work schedule.
Weekend work among dual-earner couples is also very common. In more than two-fifths of all dual-earner couples, at least one spouse worked on Saturday or Sunday. The ratio was closer to one-half of all dual-earner couples with children under five. And again, low-income couples had especially high rates of weekend work.
Single mothers are more likely than married mothers to work at nonstandard times and to work long hours. About one-fourth of single mothers with children worked late or rotating shifts and more than one-third worked weekends. For single mothers with children under age five, these ratios were one-fourth and two-fifths, respectively--and still higher for those with low incomes.
stress on marriages
Late and rotating work schedules seem particularly damaging to marriages when the couples have children at home. The competing demands of children and spouses come through in intensive interviews with such couples. In Families on the Fault Line, Lillian Rubin writes about one couple working split shifts: "If the arriving spouse gets home early enough, there may be an hour when both are there together. But with the pressures of the workday fresh for one and awaiting for the other, and with children clamoring for parental attention, there isn't a promising moment for serious conversation" (p. 95). From similar interviews in Halving It All , Francine Deutsch reports that, although this arrangement allowed both spouses to care for their children themselves and contribute to family income, "the loss of time together was a bitter pill to swallow. The physical separation symbolized a spiritual separation as well" (p. 177).
Large survey studies confirm that dual-earner couples with children have a less satisfactory married life when one spouse works at nonstandard times. I found, in a sample of about 3,500 married couples, that those in which one spouse works a late shift report having substantially less quality time together and more marital unhappiness. Couples with children are also more likely to separate or divorce. Neither working the evening shift nor weekends seemed to endanger the marriages; only night work did. One might think that spouses who choose to work night shifts do so because their marriages have soured, but data suggest the opposite: the schedule is the cause and marital strain is the effect. Spouses who moved into night work after the first interviews were not any less happy with their marriages during those pre-change interviews than were other employed spouses.
family reactions When spouses work different shifts, housework expands. Spouses tend to fend for themselves more, adding to the total family work load. Each one may make dinner for him- or herself rather than one cooking for two (as well as for the children). The husbands also do more traditionally female tasks, such as cleaning house, washing, ironing and cooking. These changes emerge for couples both with and without children. Although wives typically still spend considerably more time than husbands doing housework, husbands shoulder a larger share when their wives are not available. Working late shifts may not be the ideal way of achieving gender equality in housework, but it may be considered a good change by many wives in this situation. However, men who have traditional expectations may see it differently, making housework a potential source of friction.
The family dinner is typically the only daily event that allows for meaningful family time. The dinnertime absence of parents who work evening shifts is clearly a cost. (Night shifts and weekend employment do not generally undercut the family dinner, although schedules that rotate around the clock can.) As the graph below shows, among dual-earner couples with children ages 5 to 13, about 45 percent of the mothers and 59 percent of the fathers who worked evenings had dinner with their children fewer than five days a week. Many of their children at least had one parent available at dinnertime--but not children of single mothers. When single moms worked evenings, fewer than 40 percent ate with their children at least five days a week. Their children may have been eating with other adults, with siblings, or alone--we do not know. (Parents who miss dinner with their children because they work the evening shift do not compensate by having breakfast with them more often.)
Child care also must be negotiated differently. If mothers who work evenings or nights are married, their husbands who work during the day typically assume responsibility for child care during those hours. More than four-fifths of fathers with children under age 5 did so. Child care is also shared when the work schedules of spouses are reversed and the husband works nonstandard hours.
This tag-team arrangement increases father-child interaction. It also reduces the cost of child care. Holding down expenses is especially a concern when married mothers have low-paying jobs. But most married mothers who work evenings, nights or rotating shifts do not say they do it for this reason. Many say it is because the job demands it. Similarly, very few fathers of young children report that they work nonstandard schedules for child care reasons, even though they are often caregivers. Many parents simply do not have a choice in their work schedules.
Child care studies show that off-hours workers also rely heavily on relatives, particularly grandparents. Single mothers are especially likely to rely on grandparents, particularly grandmothers, who often work jobs with hours different from their daughters', allowing them to care for their grandchildren in their "off time."
Both single and married mothers have to rely on relatives (as well as neighbors and other informal caregivers) because only a few child care centers are open evenings or nights and not many are open on weekends. Because relatives and neighbors may not be available or willing to babysit during all the mothers' work hours, mothers are often forced to rely on multiple child care providers. More than half of all American mothers with children under age five who work late or rotating schedules or weekends rely on two or more caregivers. Multiple child care arrangements can create multiple breakdowns. Single mothers are especially vulnerable to such problems, since given their usually low earnings, they have fewer child care options. A recent tragedy reported in the New York Times (October 19, 2003) illuminates the frustration many single mothers on the night shift must face, as well as the potential for calamity:
[A]s her night shift neared, Kim Brathwaite faced a hard choice. Her baby sitter had not shown up, and to miss work might end her position as assistant manager at a McDonald's in downtown Brooklyn. So she left her two children, 9 and 1, alone, trying to stay in touch by phone. It turned out to be a disastrous decision. Someone, it seems, deliberately set fire to the apartment. Her children died. And within hours, Ms. Brathwaite was under arrest, charged with recklessly endangering her childrenÉ and now faces up to 16 years in prison. . .
Several intensive studies suggest that sleep deprivation is a chronic problem for people who work late at night or rotate their hours around the clock on a regular basis. Parents who forego sleep in order to be available for their children when they are home from school aggravate the toll on their personal health. People with such schedules run higher risks of gastrointestinal disorders, cardiovascular disease and breast cancer. Late and changing work schedules affect our sleep cycles, which in turn are linked to such biological functions as body temperature and hormone levels. Also, being out of sync with the daily rhythms of other family members raises stress and further affects physiological and psychological health.
a public discussion
Clearly, employment in a 24/7 economy challenges American families. Given what we already know--and there is more to learn--we need more public discussion on the role of employers and government. How can we help American workers and families who are feeling the pinch of nonstandard work shifts either to change to day schedules or cope with the odd hours? Low-income parents merit special attention, because they have the fewest work options and suffer the worst financial and emotional stress.
There are several policy options. For instance, we could require higher wages for late shifts to compensate workers for the social and health costs of their schedules, or reduce work hours on late shifts (without a reduction in pay) to minimize the stress on individuals and families. Such reforms could make a major difference for 24/7 workers. Although employment at nonstandard times is pervasive from the worst to the best jobs, one-third of the nonstandard jobs are concentrated in just 10 service-sector occupations, most of which are low paying: cashiers; truck drivers; sales people; waiters and waitresses; cooks; janitors and cleaners; sales supervisors and proprietors; registered nurses; food service and lodging managers; and nursing aides, orderlies, and attendants. Except for registered nurses, the median hourly pay for those in the same occupations who work at nonstandard times is about the same as or less than the pay for people who work daytimes and weekdays only. On the other hand, a financial premium for taking late shifts might tempt more non-parents to compete for those jobs or more low-income parents to take them.
Efforts to enact work-shift reforms are constrained by a lack of legal guidelines for adult workers. The Fair Labor Standards Act deals with overtime compensation for working more than 40 hours a week, but does not deal explicitly with work shifts. Pay premiums for shift work are generally negotiated by unions, but only a small minority of American workers are union members. Some unions have negotiated reduced hours at full-time pay for people working late shifts, but this is rare and the pay premiums generally are not large.
Policy could also address the particular difficulties of nonstandard shifts for parents with children by expanding the availability, flexibility and affordability of child care. Little child care is available in the evening and overnight. (Ironically, the people who would provide the care would themselves become part of the problem.) Extra compensation from public sources to providers may be needed. On-site care by employers, as some hospitals provide, and near-site care, as some airports provide, may also help. But many neighborhoods resist the late-night traffic of parents dropping off and picking up their children.
Alternatively, child care subsidies would give more low-income mothers the option of working standard hours while using day care for their young children. As noted earlier, parents who work late shifts rely heavily on multiple child-care arrangements with spouses, relatives and others. Such arrangements for late-hour home care may be financially cheaper than center care, but they may be more costly socially for everyone involved.
Finally, a policy option is to regulate night work, as many other highly industrialized countries do. For example, Belgium has highly restrictive legislation, which generally prohibits work between 8 p.m. and 6 a.m. (exceptions allow for emergency services) and all night workers are entitled by law to substantial pay premiums. However, while European unions fought for such legislation, the restriction of late work shifts does not seem to be high on the agenda of American organized labor. Some voices call for reducing the work week from 40 to 35 hours without reducing pay, but these suggestions treat all hours alike.
If new regulations are pursued, they must avoid discouraging employers from hiring parents of young children. Janet Gornick and Marcia Meyers have proposed the adoption of gender-egalitarian protections that would prevent employers from forcing parents into nonstandard shifts. These protections would expand child care as well, so that parents could switch out of those shifts if they so desire (and presumably not lose their jobs). This is clearly a complex social issue, especially in light of the increasing wariness of protective legislation amid concerns about who is protected by it. In 1990, the International Labor Organization decided to drop its recommended restrictions on women working at night after realizing that the rule had a discriminatory effect: to save those jobs for men. Similarly, in the United States, legislation protective of women was declared by the courts to be invalid under the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which outlawed sex discrimination.
Americans may not be debating these matters because, as consumers, we like stores to be open around the clock, medical services to be available continuously, and people to answer the phone when we make travel reservations late at night. Also, as employees, we may benefit from the expansion of job opportunities in a 24/7 economy. But, again, the economy that never sleeps poses risks to the workers who staff it, and to their families. Given that difficult work schedules are currently a fact of life in our economy, it is obvious that we need to think about how to mitigate their harm. Some employers have tried out shift rotation systems that minimize employee fatigue; others have investigated the use of light to control or change the circadian rhythms of people working late hours. There is also talk about medications that could reset the body's clock. We must consider as well the ethical issues that underlie these manipulations, insofar as they put workers out of sync with family and friends.
When 2 of every 5 working Americans are on nonstandard shifts, employment in a 24/7 economy and its effects on them and their families clearly need to be put higher on the public agenda. The underlying trends that have brought about the great diversity in work schedules among Americans will surely continue, and we need to confront the challenges they pose for American families.
The author gratefully acknowledges the editorial assistance of Kathleen Much at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, Stanford, California.
Casper, Lynne M. "My Daddy Takes Care of Me!: Fathers as Care Providers." Current Population Reports . Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office for the U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1997. Casper describes in detail the extent to which American fathers provide child care when mothers are employed.
Deutsch, Francine. Halving It All: How Equally Shared Parenting Works . Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999. This interview-based study includes a chapter on how some dual-earner couples work different shifts to manage child care.
Presser, Harriet B. Working in a 24/7 Economy: Challenges for American Families . New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 2003. This book describes what we know about work shifts in the United States and their consequences for American families.
Presser, Harriet B. "Race-Ethnic and Gender Differences in Nonstandard Work Shifts." Work and Occupations 30 (2003): 412-439. I examine how work shifts differ by race, ethnicity and gender.
Wedderburn, Alexander, ed. "Shiftwork and Health." Special issue of Bulletin of Studies on Time,. Vol. 1. Luxembourg: Office for Official Publications of the European Communities, 2001. Online. http://www.eurofound.ie. This report provides a comprehensive analysis of the relationship between shift work and health. (c) 2004 by the American Sociological Association. All rights reserved.