- Interview by
- Meagan Day
In 2014, a woman named Maria Fernandes died of a carbon monoxide leak in the parking lot of a Wawa convenience store in northern New Jersey. She worked an average of eighty-seven hours a week at three different Dunkin’ Donuts locations in the area and was napping in her car like she often did between shifts, with the engine running for heat. A company spokesperson remarked that Fernandes had been a “model employee.”
This is the anecdote that opens Jamie McCallum’s book Worked Over: How Round-the-Clock Work Is Killing the American Dream. But it’s not what originally inspired McCallum, a professor of sociology at Middlebury College, to study the phenomenon of overwork in the United States.
Instead, his interest was piqued by his observation that students in elite academic settings were “almost competing with each other to see how hard they could work and to showcase their work ethic,” he told Jacobin. “I became interested in why it is that people of means treat work as such a badge of honor.” Eventually, the project expanded to include workers all across the income spectrum.
Jacobin’s Meagan Day spoke to McCallum about why many low-wage workers have to work so hard, why many high-wage workers seemingly want to, and how we can build a society that puts work in its proper place. This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
How has work time changed in recent decades?
I think when some people talk about the book, they center on this one statistic, which is that the hours of all wage and salary workers have increased since the seventies pretty significantly. I think that statistic is really important.
However, if you dig into it, you find quite a lot of variation. What I found interesting was that low-wage workers have increased their time the most. We’re all familiar with white-collar professionals being overworked, but I don’t think that’s the most interesting part of the story. So there’s a trend toward overwork for everyone, but there is an unequal distribution of that rise in work time among different classes of people.
Another dimension is increased unpredictability and volatility of schedules and hours, which is mostly the case for low-wage service-sector workers. In other words, their schedules became increasingly controlled by their managers and by technology. Unpredictable hours are volatile by design, not just happenstance. And they create an incredibly stressful and hectic work life.
The last dimension is the rise in people simply not having enough hours, which is connected to the volatility. Because most employers require forty hours of availability to work, even if you only get twenty hours of work, it’s hard to find a second job that you can also work out in a reasonable way. As a result, many people are suffering from involuntary unemployment.
Can you explain how employers benefit from having people available for forty hours but working twenty, and not knowing which twenty they’ll be?
When I used to work in retail, I knew my schedule three weeks in advance, and I’d show up and have a normal shift. But now, new technology has allowed bosses to schedule people only for the time when workers are needed. In a lot of scheduling algorithms, a company can plug in the weather, the time of year, the time of day, and other kinds of factors that would help them determine how much they might sell in a given day. And that helps them determine how much floor staff they need in a retail store, for example. That in turn allows them to pay less for labor and make more money.
The other reason is that employers think making hours unpredictable and volatile keeps people from talking to and getting to know their coworkers on regular shifts, which is how a lot of organizing happens. The interesting thing is it didn’t quite work out that way, and now there’s a big movement against unpredictable scheduling.
In seeking to understand the changing patterns of labor time, you offer three explanations: the economic, the cultural, and the political. Will you elaborate on each of these?
We often think of the problem of overwork in individual terms, related to each person’s desire or need or aptitude. But there are multiple nonindividual explanations of the problem that make up the economic argument.
There’s a graph in the book that shows the parallel movement of the Gini coefficient, which is a measure of inequality, and the rise of hours over the last couple decades. The major share of profits over the last forty years has all been going to the people at the top, while wages are stagnating at the bottom. If wages are stagnant, then the main way that working-class and even middle-class people for the most part get more money is by working longer hours.
So inequality drives long hours. And the driving force of inequality is class power. The main measure of class power is the decline of the labor movement, which was the vehicle through which people got fewer hours, as well as enough hours, and things like overtime pay, for a very long time. If you erode the power of that vehicle by which people reduce their hours, the gains just start to vanish.
Next is the cultural argument, which helps explain why especially high-income workers end up working long hours even though they have comparatively more control over their time, and ostensibly free time is a social good. Why would they not work less if they could? I found two reasons. One is that high-income workers actually are subject to some of the same forces of precarity as low-wage workers.
The second is that the ideology of work has changed to produce a new work ethic. This ideology prioritizes self-actualization and expressive individuality, and suggests that you get that through work, and you get more of it through more work. I interviewed a lot of high-income workers, especially in the tech industry, and found that working longer hours was sort of a sense of self to them.
The political explanation is that both parties have pursued a policy of putting poor people to work over the last couple decades in the form of workfare. As a result, you have a whole slew of new people flooding the labor market, which has driven down wages. This has totally usurped people’s time, time that was very necessary to care for kids or family members or go to school or whatnot.
What are some other real-world illustrations of the problem of overwork, as manifested in the lives of low-wage workers?
The most obvious example in the book is the story of a woman who died while working shifts at three different Dunkin’ Donuts in northern New Jersey. She died while sleeping in her car, which she often did between shifts. She worked an average of eighty-seven hours per week, supported a partner with children, and became for a minute a poster person for the long hours and low-wage economy. She became a symbol for other workers who didn’t meet the same fate, but who nonetheless were stretched thin.
If you walk up and down any major retail street in a major city and talk to workers on breaks, as I did, you routinely find that some of them started their shift at 9:45 AM and ended at 3:15 PM — these weird times that don’t make sense until you realize their shifts are being chopped up. And many of them will tell you they need to start their next job an hour and a half or two hours later. Labor statistics might capture that time as leisure or free time, but in fact most people spend it rushing to eat, jumping on public transport, or changing into a different uniform.
One result is that the workplace looms very large in people’s lives. I talked to a lot of people who felt and described themselves as being overworked, even if they worked fewer than forty hours a week, just because they spent extra time looking for work or rushing between jobs, which is time spent thinking about work and doing activities related to work even if they’re not getting paid. So overwork and underwork are both two sides of the same coin, with a shared feature of increasing stress and intensity, and people sometimes even experience them simultaneously.
It’s easier to understand why low-income workers are working more, but let’s return to the opposite end of the spectrum. What explains longer hours among those with more control over their work time?
This was the most interesting thing for me, I guess partially because I am an exceptional workaholic.
So, low-wage workers have seen the greatest rise in hours over the last several decades, but it’s still true that high-income, mostly male workers top the charts. Why is that? This ideological stuff is often posed as if people simply had a new idea about work, or work got better and therefore we decided to do more of it.
What I did was try to figure out a way to connect a cultural fascination with the work ethic to real material changes in the way people worked. In other words, to find a political and economic basis for this new belief in the positive ideology of the work ethic.
I map it back to the seventies, when industrial workers began demanding not only higher wages and health care, but more meaningful jobs. They felt tied to the assembly line, tied to the clock, and when this came into contact with the cultural politics of the sixties and seventies people didn’t want to do that kind of work anymore. They wanted to do something more self-fulfilling.
You get a similar discourse that emerges among people who work in offices in the late eighties and nineties, this idea that the office is a hell and the cubicle is a cage. Think about the great movie Office Space. I think there were sincere desires to have work that wasn’t so deadening and monotonous, which we can all empathize with.
Add to this the fact that work transitioned from a largely industrial economy to a largely service economy during this period. A service economy actually does require that people have more input. You’re not just standing next to the assembly line; you have more discretion. People increasingly began to see themselves as individuals who were valuable to a team. It became positive to see yourself as important to a work process.
If you combine these things you get this new demand for better, more meaningful, more individualized work. What happens next is that managers, supervisors, work gurus, and so on take note, and are able to rethink it and repackage work itself as being more meaningful and significant. Managers were able to convert that desire for more meaningful work into a new work ethic, a new culture of work, for high-income workers.
How do the ideas in the book respond to the current COVID-19 crisis?
When the pandemic hit, my first thought was, “Oh no, I’m gonna publish this book about long hours when no one’s working, how bizarre is that going to be?”
But in fact, the early data on this stuff does seem to suggest that many people are working more. Email usage is measured to be more hours per day, significantly more in some industries, especially among white-collar workers.
The COVID crisis seems to have exacerbated some of the trends I described in the book and has also produced some unexpected and interesting dynamics. For example, due to childcare and other home responsibilities, the work-from-home crowd is experiencing more of the punctuated day that we talk about with people who have volatile schedules.
Meanwhile, essential workers are basically just sacrificial workers. And there are also massive numbers of unemployed people whose lives are nonetheless dominated by the search for work and the worry that they won’t find it. So there is again a lot of inequality in how people’s work lives are organized across the spectrum.
The problem of overwork affects people across the spectrum, and it doesn’t leave anybody better off besides capitalists who profit from labor. What kinds of things can we do to decrease the number of hours we work?
People need, first and foremost, more control over the hours they work, which requires having more control over the conditions of the job in general. And the best way to secure that is through a union or something like a union. So that’s the most obvious change.
The fight for control also requires that we fight for the provision of basic services. For example, most people get their health care through their employer. A lot of unionists report that health care is a drag on union negotiations. They can’t talk about wages or time or safety because they’re so busy bargaining over health care. If we take that out of the equation by implementing national public health care or Medicare for All, people’s dependence on work will decrease, and people’s ability to negotiate the terms of their jobs will increase.
Beyond that, I think there are also policies that we can fight for that are totally winnable. We could simply cut and paste policies from other countries where people work less and live happier lives, policies that would allow us to take more time off for health, for care work, for vacations, and so on.
Finally, this is a little less concrete, but we think of time as this very objective thing, but it’s just not true under capitalism. Employers and workers do not think of time the same. In an economy where workers have democratic control over their jobs, which is say a socialist society, work time would be valued very differently. Jobs themselves would be valued differently, and we can imagine that people would figure out a healthier way to fit work into their lives.