National Public Radio’s Jennifer Ludden just concluded her very good three-part series on work-life balance with a segment on shift work. Ludden’s piece opens with the story of Vickie Underwood, who had a stellar 22-year work record for an Atlanta-area printing plant until problems erupted when, at the end of her shift, she was asked to work overtime:
When she got off at 3 that afternoon, Underwood needed to hurry home to register her kids at two different schools and sign up the youngest for aftercare. The county was holding a one time all-day registration, 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., to accommodate working parents — which is ironic, considering what happened at 2, with an hour to go in Underwood’s shift.
“I was asked to work three hours mandatory overtime. I mentioned to them that I had to register my kids for school, and they told me that I couldn’t leave,” Underwood says.
Underwood had worked last-minute overtime dozens of times before, but on this day she said no. Since school registration is mandatory, she didn’t really think she’d get in trouble. In fact, her bosses skipped right over any disciplinary measure and fired her.
Benefits of Family-Friendly Scheduling
The segment goes on to examine the benefits of providing lower wage shift workers with family-friendly scheduling support, referencing an ongoing study by the National Institutes of Health:
The NIH wanted to know whether this kind of flexibility at work can improve employee health, so they matched manager flexibility against various measures of employee well-being. [Study co-leader Ellen Kossek] says those with the most accommodating managers “had better physical health reports, better sleep quality, higher job satisfaction, and less stress over work-life conflicts.”
What about Unions?
Too many examinations of work-life balance concentrate on professional and executive workers, so kudos to NPR and Ludden for devoting a segment to shift workers. However, in examining possible responses to the challenges workers face in navigating work and family, it would have been good to focus on the role of unions in negotiating family-friendly working arrangements for their members, rather than centering almost solely on management discretion.
By leaving it up to managers to offer such arrangements, workers are at the mercy of their employers. Fortunately, Vickie Underwood was not in such a position:
Underwood fought a year without pay before finally getting her job back, and she was lucky to have a union backing her up.
Maybe the real message behind the story should’ve been the central roles that unions can play in negotiating working conditions for their members and supporting them when things go wrong.