Share this article

print logo

Brief intervals between shifts take a toll on workers

On the nights when she has just seven hours between shifts at a Taco Bell in Tampa, Fla., Shetara Brown drops off her three young children with her mother. After work, she catches a bus to her apartment, takes a shower to wash off the grease and sleeps 3½ hours before getting back on the bus to return to her job.

At Hudson County Community College in Jersey City, N.J., Ramsey Montanez struggles to stay alert on the mornings he returns to his security guard station at 7 a.m., after wrapping up a 16-hour double shift at 11 p.m. the night before.

And on many Friday nights, Jeremy Little waits tables at a Perkins Restaurant & Bakery near Minneapolis and doesn’t climb into bed until 3 a.m. He returns by 10 a.m. for the breakfast rush, and sometimes feels so weary that he forgets to take rolls to some tables or to tell the chef whether customers wanted their steak medium-rare.

“It makes me feel really tired,” Little said. “My body just aches.”

Employees are literally losing sleep as restaurants, retailers and many other businesses shrink the intervals between shifts and rely on smaller, leaner staffs to shave costs. These scheduling practices can take a toll on employees who have to squeeze commuting, family duties and sleep into fewer hours between shifts. The growing practice of the same workers closing the doors at night and returning to open them in the morning even has its own name: “clopening.”

“It’s very difficult for people to work these schedules, especially if they have other responsibilities,” said Susan J. Lambert, an expert on work-life issues and a professor of organizational theory at the University of Chicago. “This particular form of scheduling – not enough rest time between shifts – is particularly harmful.”

The United States decades ago moved away from the standard 9-to-5 job as the manufacturing economy gave way to one dominated by the service sector. And as businesses strive to serve consumers better by staying open late or round the clock, they are demanding more flexibility from employees in scheduling their hours, often assigning them to ever-changing shifts.

Workers and labor advocates are increasingly protesting these scheduling practices, which often include giving workers as little as two days’ advance notice for their weekly work schedule. These concerns have gained traction and translated into legislative proposals in several states, with proponents enviously pointing to the standard adopted for workers in the 28-nation European Union. It establishes “a minimum daily rest period of 11 consecutive hours per 24-hour period.”

Britain, Germany and several other countries interpret that to require that workers be given at least 11 hours between shifts, although waivers are permitted. “If a retail shop closes at midnight, the night-shift employees are not allowed to start before 11 o’clock the next morning,” said Gerhard Bosch, a sociology professor and expert on labor practices at the University of Duisburg-Essen in Germany.

In the United States, no such national or state labor law or regulation governs the intervals between shifts, except for some particular jobs like airline pilots, although some unions have negotiated a minimum time for workers to be off, sometimes eight, 10 or 12 hours.

But at the state level this year, bills have been introduced in Maryland and Massachusetts and Minnesota, each of them calling on employers to give workers at least 11 hours between shifts and three weeks’ advance notice for schedules.

Those proposals would require businesses to pay some time and a half whenever employees are called in before 11 hours have passed between shifts.

Brown, who works as a cashier at Taco Bell, said her children – ages 5, 4 and 2 – don’t like it when she has just seven hours between shifts. That usually means they hardly see her for two nights in a row; they sleep at their grandmother’s both nights. On the second night, after just 3½ hours’ sleep the previous day, Brown says she stops by her mother’s for an hour or two to see her children, and then heads home to sleep.

“My kids say, ‘Mommy, I miss you,’ ” she said. “I get so tired, it’s hard to function. I feel so exhausted. I don’t want my kids suffering not seeing me. I try to push to go see them.”

Although Brown dislikes clopenings, she doesn’t turn them down because she needs as many hours as she can get. She makes $8.10 an hour and works about 25 hours a week.

Last summer, Starbucks announced that it would curb clopenings on the same day that the New York Times published an article profiling a barista, Jannette Navarro, mother of a 4-year-old, who worked a scheduled shift that ended at 11 p.m. and began a new shift at 4 a.m.

At the time, Cliff Burrows, Starbucks’ group president for the United States, said: “Partners should never be required to work an opening and a closing shift back-to-back. District managers must help store managers problem-solve issues specific to individual stores to make this happen.” (“Partners” is the term Starbucks uses for its employees.)

Neil Trautwein, a vice president with the National Retail Federation, acknowledged that some instances of scheduling were egregious, but he pointed to Starbucks’ voluntary response to argue that states should not enact any laws to address the issue.

“Advocates have it wrong to think you can legislate and just outlaw the process,” Trautwein said. “The market adjusts to the needs of workers.” He added that what Starbucks did “demonstrates that businesses listen to their employees and adjust.” (In response to complaints about schedules changing week to week, Walmart said last week that it would give workers more predictable schedules.)

Some managers say there are workers who don’t mind clopenings – like students who have classes Monday through Friday and want to cram in a lot of weekend work hours to maximize their pay.