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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.

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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.

“We already worked 10 hours a day. Now we work another hour or two hours overtime.” —Sylvia

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.

“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.” —David

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.

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