Economy
5:39 pm
Thu June 14, 2012

New Schedules Push Graveyard Shift Off The Clock

Originally published on Thu June 14, 2012 10:54 pm

As car companies struggle to meet growing demand, the third shift is making a comeback. But many factories running on three shifts are doing it differently from in the past. And that new "three crew" shift pattern could make what's normally a hard job even harder.

At Ford's Michigan Assembly Plant in Wayne, employees work 10-hour shifts four days a week. The so-called A crew gets days, while the B crew gets afternoons. But the C crew shift rotates its start time every week. On Fridays and Saturdays, workers start at 6:00 a.m. On Mondays and Tuesdays, they start at 4:30 p.m.

The new work pattern encourages companies to add jobs, according to the United Auto Workers. Factories can run six days a week instead of five, so they produce more cars.

More Jobs And More 'Jet Lag'?

Both Ford and Chrysler plan to keep to the three-crew pattern in the future when adding a third shift. Chrysler spokeswoman Jodi Tinson admits working 10 hours is a long day. But workers also get three days a week off, and she says it's better than the alternative, which can be lots of required overtime.

"They're not working these crazy long hours and lots of overtime that has really taken a toll on their personal health [and] their relationships with their family," Tinson says.

Still, the UAW contract lets the company tack an extra hour and a half of overtime to the end of the 10-hour shifts if necessary.

And there's a hidden cost for the C crew, according to Ronald Chervin, head of the University of Michigan Sleep Disorder Center. Rotating working hours can feel like having a bad case of jet lag, one that does not go away.

"We're very well-constructed to have a robust circadian rhythm," Chervin explains. "So the brain expects you to be awake certain parts of a 24-hour cycle and expects you to be asleep [during others]."

'It Caused Us Issues'

General Motors has tried this scheduling pattern, but Larry Zahner, the company's manufacturing manager for North America, says GM did not like waiting until Sunday to do preventive maintenance and did not like the new schedule's effect on workers.

"[The third shift] really doesn't work for people in the U.S. It just caused us issues," Zahner says.

In Trenton, Mich., the Chrysler engine plant rotated all three crews between days and evenings for two years in a row. But it proved to be disastrous.

"During that time, we had an enormous uptick [of employees out on medical leave and family medical leave]," Zahner explains. "People were missing work and/or coming in extremely late because they couldn't catch up on their sleep."

Now, the Chrysler factory is experimenting with an even more complicated pattern — six crews with everyone working days or afternoons. Gabe Solano, president of UAW Local 372, which represents workers at the Trenton plant, says it appears to be working despite some hiccups.

Looking On The Bright Side

But the rotating C crew shift will remain a fixture at Chrysler and Ford, including at Michigan Assembly Plant in Wayne.

Christopher Hanson, a veteran employee at Michigan Assembly who also goes by the nickname "Happy," chose to join the third shift, unlike many of his coworkers. In this tough economy, he's looking on the bright side.

"There are far worse things to be out doing than working a nondesirable shift here at Ford Motor Co.," Hanson says.

Ford will soon add a third rotating shift in Louisville, Ky., and Chrysler will add the shifts at its plants in Kokomo, Ind. That's hundreds more people on C crew, losing sleep but earning a living and reducing the country's stubbornly high unemployment rate.

Copyright 2013 Michigan Radio. To see more, visit http://michiganradio.org/.

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

The third shift is making a comeback at some auto plants around the country. Car companies are stepping up production to meet growing demand, and many of these factories are taking a new approach to scheduling that additional shift. Michigan Radio's Tracy Samilton reports it could make a hard job even harder.

TRACY SAMILTON, BYLINE: Hundreds of so-called C crew workers are streaming out of Ford's Michigan assembly plant in Wayne on this hot afternoon. People here work 10-hour shifts four days a week. The A crew gets days and the B crew gets afternoons. But the C crew rotates its start time. Friday and Saturday, workers start at 6:00 a.m. Monday and Tuesday, they start at 4:30 p.m. Back and forth every week. Christopher Hanson goes by the nickname Happy. Unlike many of his coworkers, he chose this shift.

CHRISTOPHER HANSON: With my seniority, I had the option, but I decided to take C crew, worked out better. I work a second job on top of this.

SAMILTON: The UAW says the pattern encourages the companies to add jobs, and Ford saves a lot of money on overtime. Factories also run six days a week, not five, so they produce more cars. This is the way Ford plans to add third shifts in the future at U.S. plants. The same is true for Chrysler. Spokeswoman Jodi Tinson says, sure, 10 hours is a long day, but workers also get three days a week off. And she says it's better than the alternative, which can be lots of required overtime.

JODI TINSON: They're not working these crazy long hours and lots of overtime that has really taken a toll on, you know, their personal health, their relationships with their family.

SAMILTON: But there's no guarantee. The UAW contract lets the company tack an extra hour and a half overtime to the end of the 10-hour shifts if need be. And there's a hidden cost for the C crew. Ron Chervin is head of the University of Michigan Sleep Disorder Center.

RON CHERVIN: We're very well constructed to have a robust circadian rhythm, and so the brain expects you to be awake certain parts of a 24-hour cycle and expects you to be asleep.

SAMILTON: So rotating working hours can be like having a bad case of jetlag, one that doesn't go away. General Motors has tried this scheduling pattern, but GM's Larry Zahner says the company didn't like waiting until Sunday to do preventive maintenance and didn't like the effect on workers.

LARRY ZAHNER: Well, that really doesn't work for people in the U.S. It just caused us issues.

SAMILTON: Issues? Gabe Solano can tell you about issues. He's president of Local 372. His Chrysler engine plant rotated all three crews between days and evenings for two years in a row. It was disastrous.

GABE SOLANO: During that time, we had an enormous uptick in medicals, an enormous uptick in FMLAs, which is your family medical leave. People were missing work and/or coming in extremely late because they couldn't catch up on their sleep.

SAMILTON: Now, the factory is experimenting with an even more complicated pattern, six crews, but everyone stays on days or afternoons. Solano says it appears to be working despite some hiccups. But the rotating C crew shift will remain a fixture at Chrysler and Ford, including at Michigan assembly. The guy they call Happy says he's looking on the bright side because it could be worse.

HANSON: There's unemployment. There are far worse things to be out doing than be working a non-desirable shift here at Ford Motor Company.

SAMILTON: Ford will soon add a third rotating shift in Louisville. Chrysler will add the shifts at its Kokomo plant. That's hundreds more people on C crew losing sleep but earning a living and reducing the country's stubbornly high unemployment rate. For NPR News, I'm Tracy Samilton in Ann Arbor. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.