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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.

Sara: Mental health technician, Nevada

I worked at the state mental health facility. I was a "mental health technician three," which is what people refer to as an orderly or a psych tech.

I loved my job and I loved the patients—I miss 'em a lot. These are people who are on what they call a "legal hold." It's when they may injure themselves or others; they're brought in by the cops. They see a psychiatrist within 72 hours, to evaluate them and see if they need further treatment. If they need further treatment, they move into the acute unit where they typically stay a week, but a stay can go up to six months.

“My doctor said that with the concussion I sustained, if I went back there and was hit again, I could have problems as an older person with my brain.” —Sara

Back before they made the cuts, we had plenty of staff. The people who were supposed to do the paperwork and answer the phones, they did that stuff while we watched and cared for the patients. Because those people were let go, we had to start answering phones and making copies and doing secretarial work. Then our staff was laid off.

People can escalate quickly and become potentially violent. The day I was injured, this doctor came up to me and said, "I'd like to talk to this patient." And I said, "I really don't trust what she's doing; I think she might pull something." I wanted another technician to come with us, because this person was very large. But I looked around; no one was there. The doctor said she couldn't wait. And then it happened.

[Before the cuts] at least one other tech would go in with you. We're highly trained not to hurt the patient, ever, even if they're trying to hit you or hit someone else or hurt themselves. They have us trained for a two-person takedown, or a three-person, or even a four-person—but never a one. I wasn't trained for that, and it's not ethical, so I got it good. I was walking out of the room and the patient hit me into unconsciousness. My doctor said that with the concussion I sustained, if I went back there and was hit again, I could have problems as an older person with my brain. So he would not write me back into my job.

I really worry for the people still there, because the injury rate has gone way up. And this is on top of pay cuts, raise of insurance rates—I mean, I lost five or six hundred bucks a month. Anybody's who's trained and been doing this for a while, for those folks it became not financially worth it for them. The people who are not on the floor every day don't understand how the cuts have been implemented and how that affects the patients. 


Heather: Adjunct college professor, Illinois

A generation ago I would have been a tenured professor. Instead, as the education "industry" is shifting and changing, courses are being taught by hourly contract workers like myself. My "part time" job takes all of my time to do. I don't remember having so many side responsibilities when I started seven years ago. Now I am expected to complete all kinds of tasks outside of the classroom: Keeping up with mountains of student emails, grading student assignments, and filling out administrative paperwork. More than that, though, class sizes are double or triple what they once were. The maximum class caps have become minimums as the school "overbooks" the classes on the assumption that some will drop the class. Whether they do or not, I get stuck with classes of 35 or more students—which would be fine if I had a teaching assistant, but I do all grading myself.

I am exhausted. I can't help my son with his homework because I am grading papers until late into the night. I get up very early during the week, skip lunch to save not money but time, and the workload never lets up.

My employer uses and abuses full-time employees even more so than those of us that are hourly. My supervisor, for example, runs a large department. He was just promoted to a new, even more demanding position, but his position running the department will not be filled. He will now be doing what is a 60- to 70-hour job "on the side."

I can't complain of overwork because everyone is competing to get enough classes to pay the bills. If you lose a class, you lose a chunk of your paycheck. If we can't handle it, the class can always be given to another teacher who will be desperate for the work or money.  

After being raised in a family with a strong work ethic and being drilled from an early age to study hard, work hard, invest money, etc., I will teach my children the opposite. Do what you want—and don't spend one minute "paying your dues" or "proving" yourself to an employer. This is a scam. You are either paid fairly—by your own standards, not theirs—from day one or you never will be. The moment you stop enjoying your job, quit—because they certainly won't hesitate to fire you on a whim. There is no such thing as "loyalty." Don't waste your youth "building your resume." Go have fun and let life develop as it may. Working for a living simply does not pay—and to exert any effort whatsoever above and beyond what you are being compensated for is to be complicit in your own exploitation.  


Steven: Air-traffic controller, Florida

From November to May, all the snowbirds come down to Florida. On some days it will be mundane, then the weather changes and all of a sudden every airplane in the world wants to go through one little bitty hole in the clouds. You are dripping sweat so bad it stains your shirt.

One day after Christmas, our computer system got gummed up with too many flights, as sometimes happens. It made it harder for me to track some of the 30 airplanes that I had on frequency—almost double what we'd handle on a heavy day 15 years ago. And I was talking so fast! It's like playing ping-pong with 10 people. As I was issuing a clearance to somebody, four of them tried to read it back.

“One guy was 38. He went home after a really long day, poured himself a drink, sat down in his armchair, and died.” —Steven

I told them to get somebody else to help me track all these airplanes. And then as I sat up in my chair to reposition myself, I totally lost the picture. I'm like, Oh shit. There were five pieces of the puzzle that I was juggling and I couldn't remember where they were going. The backup guy saved me. But in the six years since we developed a severe staffing shortage, that kind of backup hasn't always been available.

My father was an air traffic controller. The famous air traffic strike that he joined in 1981 wasn't about pay, it was about staffing levels, scheduling, and more than anything about getting better equipment—making things safer for people who fly. As those technology changes have slowly come, so has new kinds of productivity. But even the newer equipment can't totally replace us.

One of our computer systems, the User Request Evaluation Tool, takes the information in the flight plan and it projects it way out. It says, Okay, these airplanes are going to be in conflict with one another in awhile. The younger controllers with less experience rely on it, but I'm looking at the radar screen or a set of strips and saying, You gotta do something about this. And they go, Why? —Because trust me, this is gonna be a problem in a minute. And sure enough, five minutes later, there is a problem. Even with the best computer in the world, human experience will see beyond what the computer can see. And that's your double-edged sword.

Wind, altitude, weather: All of those things have an effect, and when you pile them all up that is when you really start to get into the complexity of what we do. You make a thousand decisions a day. Any one of them could not only cost you your job, it could cost lives or money. Even simple things like: I'm tired, I don't feel like trying to run these guys as tight today as I should, I need to space it out a little bit because I'm not feeling good and I don't want to make a mistake. If you stretch out a line of airplanes from five miles in trail to eight miles in trail, you may have just cost an airline a thousand dollars. And somebody is looking over your shoulder going, Hey, why are you doing this?

Now with all the publicity about fatigue issues, more facilities are doubling up on controllers. Well, where did that second person come from? They don't have enough guys, so some other shift is now short to backfill the midnight shift. For some people, it has made an unsustainable situation even worse.

My regular routine is two night shifts, a midday shift from, say, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., a day shift the next day from 6 a.m. to 2 p.m., and then spin around that next night and come in and work the midnight shift from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. So how do you fit in coaching somebody's softball team or the PTA when you work that kind of shift work? You try to squeeze it in like anybody else would do, and you do the best you can. Something suffers along the way. Sometimes it's your home life or your relationship with your wife, and sometimes it's the job at hand. I thought that by now I'd have the opportunity to have maybe a week off during Christmas or have Saturdays to spend with my three-year-old. That hasn't happened.

I can't tell you about all the suicides and the accidental deaths where I work. One year we lost more than a tenth of our controllers due to burnout. One guy was 38. He went home after a really long day, poured himself a drink, sat down in his armchair, and died.

Stress hurts your body. When my dad retired in his late 50s he looked like he was 90 years old. I'm only 45 and when I visit old friends they go, "You look from a distance like you are physically healthy, but when I see you up close…" And it bothers me because I love the job, and I've made this commitment that I'm going to see through to retirement, I hope. But at what cost?

There was a situation two years ago with a controller who was tired and overloaded with airplanes. I got asked to go in and be that extra set of eyes. The moment I plugged in my headset, the person that I was coming in to help went down. They had totally lost it and made a major series of mistakes with one bad clearance. One sentence. And that is the reality.

All interviews edited for length and clarity. This story includes sources from Mother Jones' Public Insight Network.

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