Thrown Back 100 Years: How Today’s ‘Bottom Line’ Means Unsafe, Overworked Employees

Overwork is costing us in ways that companies probably never intended and likely don’t care about. An in-depth article in The Nation details the problems that come with overwork in several areas, spotlighting its major consequences in industries like meatpacking and healthcare. Basically, since the recession, people lucky enough to still have jobs are now getting worked to death, which is resulting in added sickness, and possibly even death, for others.

Overtime and wage laws neither stop nor discourage this. One of the intents of the original minimum wage and the original overtime laws, was to stop employers from working their employees around the clock for mere pennies. The Nation writer Esther Kaplan notes that sometime in the 1970s, it became cheaper to pay overtime than it did to hire new workers.

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One victim of this practice is nurses who work at hospitals owned by for-profit corporations. HMOs demanding price cuts in the ’90s, coupled with for-profit “healthcare” companies buying up hospitals, has resulted in too many really sick patients and too few nurses. Kaplan spotlights Wilkes-Barre General Hospital, where night nurses are overwhelmed with patients that would once have been kept in an ICU ward. But they also don’t have any help; they can call for assistants or supervisors repeatedly to help them with something, and nobody comes.

At a meatpacking plant in Nebraska, workers have seen their workloads skyrocket, and their injuries increase, while their staff numbers dwindle. The plant is run according to food safety laws and without concern for the safety and well being of employees. It’s so bad that supervisors routinely refuse to grant bathroom breaks. Kaplan spoke to one employee who actually said he’s seen people pee in their pants during a shift, because they aren’t allowed to leave the floor for a bathroom break.

This is one of the reasons our economic recovery hasn’t included much in the way of job growth. It’s still cheaper to pay overtime than it is to hire more workers. For the Chicago Police Department, $39 million will get 150 full time officers, while that same amount will pay 200 existing officers in overtime, according to the Chicago Sun-Times. The department sees that as more bang for their buck and won’t hire, despite repeated calls to do so. This is very likely the case in the private sector, too.

Chicago’s city council worries about officer burnout and it’s a legitimate concern everywhere. Wilkes-Barre General Hospital has severe problems with burning nurses out and having nurses responsible for patients who are too stressed and too tired to properly care for those patients. In the food industry, that leads to a decline in the overall safety of the food that makes it to our store shelves. Meatpackers at the Nebraska plant also don’t get much in the way of sick time, so they work while sick, and get their germs in our food. Is the money really worth it? To those at the top, it’s not only worth it, it’s all that matters.

But this is the reality of the America we live in today, where the bottom line of dollars is all that matters. The decline of unions, coupled with woefully inadequate labor laws, has thrown us back to a time where employers work employees to the bone, and then some. Anything to squeeze out every dollar imaginable.


Featured image by Howard R. Hollem,  Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

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