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Extreme Workers and the Ripple Effect of Long Hours on the Job…

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I’ve always been perplexed by those who are content with working their lives away. Of course I’m no one to talk. On more than one occasion I have been labeled a work-a-holic. But now there is a new term – ‘Extreme Worker. I first heard it on the radio a few years back but more recently on NPR. In the end, I did what I always do with new buzz words. I filed it under “another meaningless word to describe something equally meaningless that doesn’t deserve my full attention.” 

As it turns out, two reports were released last week, from two well respected organizations, in the field of life and work studies. 

The general message of both studies is that we spend far too much time at work. Moreover, the consequences of that extra work are far reaching, and destructive.

“Extreme Job” is the phrase coined by the Hidden Brain Drain Task Force of the Center for Work-Life Policy. According to this think tank, you have an extreme job if you work 60 hours or more a week and meet at least 5 additional characteristics from a list of 10. These include fast-paced work under tight deadlines, responsibility for profit and loss, a large amount of travel, an unpredictable flow of work, and work- related events outside business hours.

Based on two surveys and dozens of interviews and focus groups, the Hidden Brain Drain Task Force estimates that about 20 percent of high earners in the United States, defined as those in the top 6 percent of income levels, meet the definition of an extreme worker. That means 20 percent of those who make it to the top are working harder than any human can sustain for very long.

A 60-hour workweek, with a one- hour commute each way, means leaving the house at 7 a.m. every morning and not returning until 9 p.m. And more than half of extreme workers log longer hours than that.

Some say they love the thrill, the meaning, the challenge, the oversized compensation packages and the brilliant colleagues.

Of course the term “Extreme Worker” generally refers to those in the white collar world. However, does this phenomena also extend to the average service or blue collar worker as well?

In the U.S., working time has actually been increasing across all sectors. Many workers put in longer hours than the forty hour standard. Two weeks of paid annual leave is standard, with some workers receiving three weeks after long periods of service. Frequently, workers are afraid to take up their full entitlement in case it might jeopardize their job security.

In blue collar industries like service and manufacturing, hours are rising as well, and we all know about the two earner household being the new standard. The United States is an example of a country where workweek policies are not strictly enforced. The U.S. legally allows mainly two types of compensation, those being wage and salary labor. Wage earners are compensated on a per-hour basis, whereas salaried workers are compensated on a per-week basis. The 40-hour workweek, in effect, applies only to wage laborers, yet legally they may be required to work more than forty hours. The kicker…firms are only required to pay time-and-a-half, or 1.5 times the worker’s base wage, for each hour of work past forty.

As you might imagine, overtime is very popular with larger companies.

In some states firms are required to pay double-time, or twice the base rate, for each hour of work past 60. This provides an incentive for companies to limit working time, but makes these additional hours more desirable for the worker. It is not uncommon for overtime hours to be accepted voluntarily by wage-earning workers. In fact, unions often treat overtime as a desirable fringe benefit when negotiating labor contracts. 

Salaried workers however, are not covered by overtime protections. Some have argued, as I have, that the concept of being exempt from overtime is now being abused by many companies, as increasing a salaried worker’s working hours effectively reduces his or her per-hour pay, resulting in cheaper labor for the enterprise.

The current economically conservative and anti-worker political culture in the federal government, doesn’t help the situation much. Unlike Europe, our government doesn’t seem to care much about the health and welfare of the average American worker.

So what do Americans do in the face of constant job insecurity in the form of outsourcing, layoff, and a total absence of union protection that is perpetuated by the government in the interest of big business?

They work longer to keep their job at any cost – even those who say they love it. In reality they have no choice because some other fearful empty suit will be right in line behind them to scoop up their job. What is even more ridiculous, is that they do this having full knowledge of the consequences.  

Sixty-nine percent say their extreme jobs undermine their health, 46 percent say work gets in the way of a good relationship with their spouse, and 58 percent say it gets in the way of strong relationships with their children.

And what about those children?

Catalyst, a research and consulting organization that aims to expand opportunities for women at work, looked specifically at stress on working parents at the office, which they call “parental concern about after-school time,” or PCAST.

All those instances where child care falls through, all the hours children are left alone or with a sitter, all the hours people spent at the office knowing a child is home sick – affects close to 50 million employees in the United States, the Catalyst study says.

The solution, both groups say, is what Catalyst calls “the agile workplace.”

That means a philosophy of flexibility. On the specific topic of PCAST, that could include subsidies for after school care and backup care, and the ability to telecommute.

The alternative, the task force warns, is that today’s distracted and overworked employees will become tomorrow’s drag on the bottom line.

Are any of these proposed solutions being implemented? Of course not. Just ask yourself if you know of any free after school programs or care programs designed to help overworked parents?

You won’t find any. 

Harvard professor Juliet Schor (check out our book review here), author of the book, The Overworked American, writes:

A decade of research by Berkeley sociologist Arlie Hochschild suggests that many marriages where women are doing the “second shift” are close to the breaking point.  When job, children, and marriage have to be attended to, it’s often the marriage that is neglected. The failure of many men to do their share at home further problems. A twenty-six-year-old legal secretary in California reports that her husband “does no cooking, no washing, no anything else. How do I feel? Furious. If our marriage ends, it will be on this issue. And it just might.”

Serious as these problems are, the most alarming development may be the effect of the work explosion on the care of children. According to economist Sylvia Hewlett, child neglect has become endemic to our society.” A major problem is that children are increasingly left alone, to fend for themselves while their parents are at work.  Nationwide, estimates of children in “self”—or, more accurately, “no”—care range up to seven million.  Local studies have found figures of up to one-third of children caring for themselves.  At least half a million preschoolers are thought to be left at home part of each day.  One 911 operator reports large numbers of frightened callers: “It’s not uncommon to hear from a child of six or seven who has been left in charge of even younger siblings.”

Even when parents are at home, overwork may leave them with limited time, attention, or energy for their children. One working parent noted, “My child has severe emotional problems because I am too tired to listen to him. It is not quality time; it’s bad quantity time that’s destroying my family.” Economist Victor Fuchs has found that between 1960 and 1986, the time parents actually had available to be with children fell ten hours a week for whites and twelve for blacks.  Hewlett links the “parenting deficit” to a variety of problems plaguing the country’s youth: poor performance in school, mental problems, drug and alcohol use, and teen suicide. According to another expert, kids are being “cheated out of childhood…There is a sense that adults don’t care about them.”

In the end we must ask ourselves as a culture – is it worth it?

Another good link on this topic from Harvard here

The Employee Free Choice Act (H.R. 800)…

The Employee Free Choice Act was passed by the House in March and it would at long last amend the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) to establish a new system enabling employees to form, join, or assist labor organizations in the establishment of a union more easily. Ronald Reagan just sat up in his grave I think – sorry Ronny. Anyways, certain provisions call for mandatory injunctions that would thwart unfair labor practices directed at employees, during organizing efforts, by employers. The bill would also establish harsher penalties for employers who violate employee rights when an employee attempts to form a union, and institutes new mediation and arbitration processes for first-contract disputes in dog’s years. Of course all that is very nice, but the card check provision is all that really matters in the new legislation. The law would essentially allow employees to form unions by signing cards authorizing union representation as opposed to the current law that calls for a secret ballot election. Under current law, if employees present an employer with union authorization cards signed by a majority, the employer can demand a secret ballot election supervised by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). However, the (NLRB) election process, unknown to most outside of labor circles, provides a distinct advantage to the employer due to its tedious and time-consuming nature. Predictably, it gives employers time to intimidate, coerce and harass workers; dragging out the review process indefinitely while workplace anti-union activities run amok. Even more predictably, when workers try to form a union after a card check, employers routinely respond with intimidation, harassment and retaliation. Polls suggest that 65 percent of the public approves of unions, but those same polls also show that nearly one-third of the public does not realize how hard management fights workers who seek to form unions. Personally, I believe it is high time that organized labor gets to hang one in the win column. For twenty-five years, courtesy of Ronald Reagan’s PATCO precedent, organized labor has been getting bludgeoned to death with the (NLRB) stick by employers who exercise an unrestricted reign of terror on anyone who even thinks of unionizing a workplace. Sadly, these practices are often upheld by politically motivated (NLRB) case decisions, a pathetic lack of labor reform policy by labors so-called party in Washington, namely the Democrats, and a general cultural brainwashing that is fueled by right wing talk radio blow-holes. Here are some hard stats. Currently, 15.4 million or 12 percent of the American work force belongs to unions, down 325,00 workers from last year. Another 60 million workers, when polled, stated that they would support a union in their workplace. Also, 67 percent of all workers say that they disapprove of employer anti-union activities when a union is proposed and another 77 percent say that they strongly support laws that help form new unions. With these statistics serving as a backdrop, the contrast of employer’s reactions is startling. Statistics show that when employers are faced with the establishment of a union, they universally engage in a variety of anti-union activities. For instance, 25 percent of all employers fire at least one employee during union organizing activity. 75 percent of all employers who face union organizing activity hire outside union-busting consultants to disrupt the union organization drive. 78 percent of all employers force their employees and immediate supervisors to attend at least one anti-union information session, while 92 percent force employees to attend anti-union closed door meetings. And the most ridiculous and underhanded tactic of all deals with illegal workers that were consciously hired by an employer. When those workers start talking union, 52 percent of employers threaten to call immigration and report the employee’s illegal citizenship status. Given all this, it is about time the tables begin to turn. What is the worst that can happen – higher union wages that pay a real working wage and robust union mandated health and retirement benefits force some manufacturing companies out of business or to relocate to China? What do we have to lose?

Posted by Matthew Podoba 3/30/07