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.