24/7 economy's work schedules are family unfriendly and suggest needed policy changes

May 25, 2004

WASHINGTON, DC -- With 40 percent of the American labor force working mostly during nonstandard hours--in the evenings, overnight, on rotating schedules, or on weekends--workers' family life and health are being adversely affected, according to research by sociology professor Harriet B. Presser at the University of Maryland-College Park.

"Such schedules undermine the stability of marriages, increase the amount of housework to be done, reduce family cohesiveness, and require elaborate childcare arrangements," according to Presser. She documents these consequences in her article "The Economy that Never Sleeps" in the spring 2004 issue of Contexts magazine, published by the American Sociological Association.

While these schedules might have some benefits, such as increased sharing of housework between husband and wife, increases in father's engagement in childcare and interaction, and possible decrease in childcare costs, most married mothers say they do these schedules because the job demands it. A central factor generating the large number of people working nonstandard hours is the remarkable growth of the service economy, which requires more around-the-clock employees than does manufacturing.

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. This situation particularly challenges families with children. Thirty-five percent of dual-earner couples with a child under the age of five had a parent with such a schedule. These nonstandard work shifts are most problematic for single mothers because they are generally of low income and have limited childcare options.

"Single mothers are more likely than married mothers to work at nonstandard times and to work long hours. About one-fourth of single mothers worked late or on rotating shifts and more than one-third worked weekends," said Presser.

Presser's research found that couples in which one spouse works a late shift report having substantially less quality time together and more marital unhappiness and that couples with children are more likely to separate or divorce. But working the evening shift or weekends did not seem to endanger the marriage; only night work did. An important family cost of the evening shift (and rotating schedule) is the dinnertime absence of parents, dinner typically being the only daily event that allows for meaningful family time. When single moms work evenings, only slightly more than 35 percent eat with their children at least five days a week.

These nonstandard schedules cause problems with caregiver schedules as well because only a few childcare centers are open evenings and nights. There is heavy reliance on informal arrangements. "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," said Presser. " Multiple child care arrangements can create multiple breakdowns."

This arrangement also affects health. One reason is that parents may forgo sleep in order to be available for their children. Those on late and rotating schedules run higher risks of gastrointestinal disorder, cardiovascular disease, and breast cancer.

In her article, Presser calls for more public discourse on this neglected social issue. She outlines possible policy options to deal with the problems faced by parents with nonstandard hours, such as requiring higher wages for late shifts to compensate workers for the social and health costs of their schedules, or reducing work hours on late shifts (without a reduction in pay) to minimize the stress on individuals and families. Other suggestions include addressing the difficulties of finding child care for parents with nonstandard shifts, greater child care subsidies to single parents, and regulating night work.

"The economy that never sleeps poses risks to the workers who staff it, and to their families," said Presser. "When two out of five 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."
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Members of the media interested in a copy of Presser's should contact Johanna Ebner in the ASA Public Information Office (202-383-9005 x332, pubinfo@asanet.org). Further information on ASA's Contexts magazine, published in collaboration with the University of California Press, can be found at www.contextsmagazine.org.

The American Sociological Association, founded in 1905, is a non-profit membership association dedicated to serving sociologists in their work, advancing sociology as a science and profession, and promoting the contributions and use of sociology to society.

American Sociological Association

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