Monday, June 27, 2011

Harrowing, Heartbreaking Tales of Overworked Americans

First person stories of doing more with less, from warehouses and classrooms to operating rooms and air-traffic control towers.

These stories are part of our package on how corporations are shoving more work onto each employee, helping to goose profits by 22 percent. Read the essay and look at 12 charts that will make your blood boil. Do you have your own workplace speedup story to tell? Share it in the comments.

Sylvia: Warehouse loader, California
It's a big old warehouse out in the desert, a distribution center for [a major pharmacy chain]. It's way bigger than a Walmart, but with no air conditioning. Our temperature gets up to 115 degrees. Sometimes it feels so hot in there that you just can't breathe. You have a lot of people go home sick from the heat. To stay cool people put towels around their necks. They go back and forth getting ice to chew on.

In my part of the warehouse, we load products like cigarettes, shampoos, or lotions into totes that get sent down the rollers to where the trucks are. We're given orders by scanning our badges and totes into a computer system, which tells us what to pull and how quickly it has to be done. Back when I started in 1999, the rate wasn't so bad, but for about a year, they've been gradually ratcheting it up. Say the old rate was 100 orders a day. Now they're up to 160, sometimes even higher.

I've talked to some of the coordinators who add up the numbers at night. They've told me that it's impossible to meet the rate that they want with the amount of people that we have. So we have to work longer. We already worked 10 hours a day. Now we work another hour or two hours overtime, sometimes with last-minute notice. If we refuse to stay longer, we get disciplined.

On the job you're bending down constantly, reaching forward using the same movement in your hands to open up boxes or unwrap packages. My group's supposed to just handle lighter stuff but now they make us pull whole cases of water and Gatorade. These are older ladies doing this. One woman hurt her back and she's off on workers comp. It builds up on people's bodies, and that's why people call in sick. So that might be another hour that other people have to work.

On the job I used to get anxiety attacks. One time we were about to go out to lunch and I just couldn't breathe, couldn't get no air. I just started panicking. But I calmed myself. I don't know what other job I could get that would pay the bills. I'm in my fifties and I have six children and then I have my grandchildren. Sometimes I get home and I don't even spend time with them. I'm just so tired I go to sleep. Five hours later, it's gotta get up, gotta walk in there.

"Mom," my kids always ask, "are you going to work today?"


"What time are you getting home?"

"I don't know." That's the answer I tell them all the time.

Martha: Hotel housekeeper, Indiana*
The day begins at 6:30 or ten to 7. We start folding towels, get our carts ready, and then we have a 15-minute break to eat breakfast. At 8 we punch in and finally start getting paid. They give us 30 minutes for each vacant room, 10 if it's still occupied. When I first started 10 years ago, we'd clean 14 to 15 rooms in a day. Now we clean 40—to save money, they told us. It's always run, run, run! I don't eat lunch anymore. If I don't finish in time, they'll cut my hours the following week. Sometimes I'll clock out and then go back upstairs for a half-hour to finish.

I can't go out after work because I'm so tired. I never party. My arms, my feet, my back often hurt so bad that I can't sleep at night. Last week, I was reaching for the shampoo bottles in a shower and I fell and hurt my knee. They told me that I had to keep working. I felt so disillusioned. But I can't quit. I have four kids, and other employers would demand a valid Social Security number.

*Name has been changed.

David: Surgeon, Michigan
Residents cannot work more than 80 hours a week. When I was training years ago, there was no such law. Sometimes that meant not sleeping, literally, for days on end. So it wasn't unusual for me when I was in my late 20s and early 30s to be working 110, 112 hours a week. It was regarded like a badge of courage, and if you wanted to succeed, you just had to do it. You had to look forward to the time when, as an attending surgeon, you wouldn't have to work that hard, because you'd have the new residents do all of the extra work.

Well, that didn't last very long, because I had been an attending surgeon for only a very short while when these laws started to become real. Now the residents have to leave the premises and go home, and if they don't, then the accreditation body could close down that whole residency. It became obvious after a while that the people who were catching up on the slack were us, the attendings. That means a guy like me—I'm 67 and still working full-time. Guys like me now have to work just like we did when we were residents. When the residents have to go home and something needs to be written up or the patient needs to be seen in the middle of the night, the person who has to do that is me.

I work four days in a row, 24/7. By the time 96 hours is over, there isn't a lot of energy left for anything. That doesn't mean that I can stop taking care of patients. That means if I get called because somebody needs a prescription, or somebody has a complication from an operation I've done a few days previously, then I can't say, "Oh, let's get the resident."

I'm stretched so thin that I can't really give all of my attention to places that I really want to, because I'm too tired, because I've got too many patients to see. That's not just me. This is happening all over the place.

Susan: Fourth-grade teacher, Michigan
I've been a teacher for 12 years now. This year I think I have fewer kids than I've had in any previous year, which I keep counting as a blessing, except it seems I have more things to do. Teachers are always being asked to integrate technology into the curriculum, which is great, but that technology takes a lot of time to do properly. You send the kids out the door, but now instead of grading papers, you're also trying to figure out this lesson that you've downloaded, but, oh, you can't use it because the district firewall is blocking it, so then you have to download it at home, and by then it's getting late.

We don't have boxes of Kleenex at our school—that would be a luxury. You just get a roll of toilet tissue and it sits on the counter and that's where kids blow their nose. Instead of planning a lesson, I'm in line at Target trying to buy lined paper or pencils.

I can't imagine any of my colleagues who haven't purchased things like foods and snacks over the years. When I was a kid we all bought that stuff. Now as teachers you're providing most of that stuff—the cups, the plates, all that stuff. You have 33 kids, but you only have 30 books, but your school doesn't have a copier, so you're off to Kinko's at night after work. Teachers are the kings and queens of multitasking.

There are no real increases in compensation to account for those things at all. Do teachers need to make more money? It's a tough argument to make in this economy. I'm a national board certified teacher, and with the way our contract is written, there is a stipend given to us to supplement our current salary. But with the current economic situation, I don't know if we'll get that this year.

Sara: Mental health technician, Nevada
I worked at the state mental health facility. I was a "mental health technician three," which is what people refer to as an orderly or a psych tech.

I loved my job and I loved the patients—I miss 'em a lot. These are people who are on what they call a "legal hold." It's when they may injure themselves or others; they're brought in by the cops. They see a psychiatrist within 72 hours, to evaluate them and see if they need further treatment. If they need further treatment, they move into the acute unit where they typically stay a week, but a stay can go up to six months.

Back before they made the cuts, we had plenty of staff. The people who were supposed to do the paperwork and answer the phones, they did that stuff while we watched and cared for the patients. Because those people were let go, we had to start answering phones and making copies and doing secretarial work. Then our staff was laid off.

People can escalate quickly and become potentially violent. The day I was injured, this doctor came up to me and said, "I'd like to talk to this patient." And I said, "I really don't trust what she's doing; I think she might pull something." I wanted another technician to come with us, because this person was very large. But I looked around; no one was there. The doctor said she couldn't wait. And then it happened.

[Before the cuts] at least one other tech would go in with you. We're highly trained not to hurt the patient, ever, even if they're trying to hit you or hit someone else or hurt themselves. They have us trained for a two-person takedown, or a three-person, or even a four-person—but never a one. I wasn't trained for that, and it's not ethical, so I got it good. I was walking out of the room and the patient hit me into unconsciousness. My doctor said that with the concussion I sustained, if I went back there and was hit again, I could have problems as an older person with my brain. So he would not write me back into my job.

I really worry for the people still there, because the injury rate has gone way up. And this is on top of pay cuts, raise of insurance rates—I mean, I lost five or six hundred bucks a month. Anybody's who's trained and been doing this for a while, for those folks it became not financially worth it for them. The people who are not on the floor every day don't understand how the cuts have been implemented and how that affects the patients.

Heather: Adjunct college professor, Illinois
A generation ago I would have been a tenured professor. Instead, as the education "industry" is shifting and changing, courses are being taught by hourly contract workers like myself. My "part time" job takes all of my time to do. I don't remember having so many side responsibilities when I started seven years ago. Now I am expected to complete all kinds of tasks outside of the classroom: Keeping up with mountains of student emails, grading student assignments, and filling out administrative paperwork. More than that, though, class sizes are double or triple what they once were. The maximum class caps have become minimums as the school "overbooks" the classes on the assumption that some will drop the class. Whether they do or not, I get stuck with classes of 35 or more students—which would be fine if I had a teaching assistant, but I do all grading myself.

I am exhausted. I can't help my son with his homework because I am grading papers until late into the night. I get up very early during the week, skip lunch to save not money but time, and the workload never lets up.

My employer uses and abuses full-time employees even more so than those of us that are hourly. My supervisor, for example, runs a large department. He was just promoted to a new, even more demanding position, but his position running the department will not be filled. He will now be doing what is a 60- to 70-hour job "on the side."
I can't complain of overwork because everyone is competing to get enough classes to pay the bills. If you lose a class, you lose a chunk of your paycheck. If we can't handle it, the class can always be given to another teacher who will be desperate for the work or money. 

After being raised in a family with a strong work ethic and being drilled from an early age to study hard, work hard, invest money, etc., I will teach my children the opposite. Do what you want—and don't spend one minute "paying your dues" or "proving" yourself to an employer. This is a scam. You are either paid fairly—by your own standards, not theirs—from day one or you never will be. The moment you stop enjoying your job, quit—because they certainly won't hesitate to fire you on a whim. There is no such thing as "loyalty." Don't waste your youth "building your resume." Go have fun and let life develop as it may. Working for a living simply does not pay—and to exert any effort whatsoever above and beyond what you are being compensated for is to be complicit in your own exploitation.

Steven: Air-traffic controller, Florida
From November to May, all the snowbirds come down to Florida. On some days it will be mundane, then the weather changes and all of a sudden every airplane in the world wants to go through one little bitty hole in the clouds. You are dripping sweat so bad it stains your shirt.

One day after Christmas, our computer system got gummed up with too many flights, as sometimes happens. It made it harder for me to track some of the 30 airplanes that I had on frequency—almost double what we'd handle on a heavy day 15 years ago. And I was talking so fast! It's like playing ping-pong with 10 people. As I was issuing a clearance to somebody, four of them tried to read it back.
I told them to get somebody else to help me track all these airplanes. And then as I sat up in my chair to reposition myself, I totally lost the picture. I'm like, Oh shit. There were five pieces of the puzzle that I was juggling and I couldn't remember where they were going. The backup guy saved me. But in the six years since we developed a severe staffing shortage, that kind of backup hasn't always been available.

My father was an air traffic controller. The famous air traffic strike that he joined in 1981 wasn't about pay, it was about staffing levels, scheduling, and more than anything about getting better equipment—making things safer for people who fly. As those technology changes have slowly come, so has new kinds of productivity. But even the newer equipment can't totally replace us.

One of our computer systems, the User Request Evaluation Tool, takes the information in the flight plan and it projects it way out. It says, Okay, these airplanes are going to be in conflict with one another in awhile. The younger controllers with less experience rely on it, but I'm looking at the radar screen or a set of strips and saying, You gotta do something about this. And they go, Why? —Because trust me, this is gonna be a problem in a minute. And sure enough, five minutes later, there is a problem. Even with the best computer in the world, human experience will see beyond what the computer can see. And that's your double-edged sword.

Wind, altitude, weather: All of those things have an effect, and when you pile them all up that is when you really start to get into the complexity of what we do. You make a thousand decisions a day. Any one of them could not only cost you your job, it could cost lives or money. Even simple things like: I'm tired, I don't feel like trying to run these guys as tight today as I should, I need to space it out a little bit because I'm not feeling good and I don't want to make a mistake. If you stretch out a line of airplanes from five miles in trail to eight miles in trail, you may have just cost an airline a thousand dollars. And somebody is looking over your shoulder going, Hey, why are you doing this?

Now with all the publicity about fatigue issues, more facilities are doubling up on controllers. Well, where did that second person come from? They don't have enough guys, so some other shift is now short to backfill the midnight shift. For some people, it has made an unsustainable situation even worse.

My regular routine is two night shifts, a midday shift from, say, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., a day shift the next day from 6 a.m. to 2 p.m., and then spin around that next night and come in and work the midnight shift from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. So how do you fit in coaching somebody's softball team or the PTA when you work that kind of shift work? You try to squeeze it in like anybody else would do, and you do the best you can. Something suffers along the way. Sometimes it's your home life or your relationship with your wife, and sometimes it's the job at hand. I thought that by now I'd have the opportunity to have maybe a week off during Christmas or have Saturdays to spend with my three-year-old. That hasn't happened.

I can't tell you about all the suicides and the accidental deaths where I work. One year we lost more than a tenth of our controllers due to burnout. One guy was 38. He went home after a really long day, poured himself a drink, sat down in his armchair, and died.

Stress hurts your body. When my dad retired in his late 50s he looked like he was 90 years old. I'm only 45 and when I visit old friends they go, "You look from a distance like you are physically healthy, but when I see you up close…" And it bothers me because I love the job, and I've made this commitment that I'm going to see through to retirement, I hope. But at what cost?

There was a situation two years ago with a controller who was tired and overloaded with airplanes. I got asked to go in and be that extra set of eyes. The moment I plugged in my headset, the person that I was coming in to help went down. They had totally lost it and made a major series of mistakes with one bad clearance. One sentence. And that is the reality.

All interviews edited for length and clarity. This story includes sources from Mother Jones' Public Insight Network.


  1. "I've talked to some of the coordinators who add up the numbers at night. They've told me that it's impossible to meet the rate that they want with the amount of people that we have. So we have to work longer. We already worked 10 hours a day. Now we work another hour or two hours overtime, sometimes with last-minute notice. If we refuse to stay longer, we get disciplined."

    Yep been there done that. Worked 14 hour days for 15 years for a fortune 500 company and ended up with my job outsourced to India 13 months ago at the age of 58.

    Good, they can have my cruddy job. My tyrannical boss of 10 years was just let go recently. She thought like most of you corporate drones, "this a never happen to me." Well it will, the middle class is being systematically destroyed. Welcome to 1984.

  2. United we stand, divided we fall. One man's unfortunate circumstances will affect you - give it time, you just don't see the axe coming.


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