New Schedules Push Graveyard Shift Off The Clock

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A worker builds cars on the assembly line at Ford's Chicago Assembly plant, which has adopted the "three crew" work schedule. The new third shift can increase efficiency in factories, but it can also wreak havoc on sleep needs and home lives. i i

hide captionA worker builds cars on the assembly line at Ford's Chicago Assembly plant, which has adopted the "three crew" work schedule. The new third shift can increase efficiency in factories, but it can also wreak havoc on sleep needs and home lives.

Scott Olson/Getty Images
A worker builds cars on the assembly line at Ford's Chicago Assembly plant, which has adopted the "three crew" work schedule. The new third shift can increase efficiency in factories, but it can also wreak havoc on sleep needs and home lives.

A worker builds cars on the assembly line at Ford's Chicago Assembly plant, which has adopted the "three crew" work schedule. The new third shift can increase efficiency in factories, but it can also wreak havoc on sleep needs and home lives.

Scott Olson/Getty Images

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.

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