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NIOSH Safety and Health Topic:

Work Schedules: Shift Work and Long Work Hours

Overtime, Occupational Stress, and Related Health Outcomes: A Labor Perspective

Extended Abstracts from Conference:
Long Working Hours, Safety, And Health: Toward A National Research Agenda
University of Maryland, Baltimore, Maryland
April 29 - 30, 2004
Using a multi-disciplinary approach, this conference explored the sociological, economic, and health dimensions of long work hours.

David LeGrande
Communications Workers of America, Washington, DC

I am David LeGrande, Director of Occupational Safety and Health for the Communications Workers of America (CWA), AFL-CIO, CLC. CWA represents some 800,000 workers employed within the telecommunications: electronics, automotive, and furniture manufacturing; printing and publishing; media and broadcasting; cable TV; public education; and health care sectors and industries. Many of the workers in these industries report concerns both with forced or mandatory as well as voluntary overtime.

It is a pleasure to participate and present at this most important conference dealing with “Long Working Hours, Safety, and Health: Toward a National Research Agenda.” In that regard, I would like to thank the conference organizers for their hard work in putting together this conference. Also, a warm thank you goes to the School of Nursing- University of Maryland and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health for their sponsorship and support of this conference.


My presentation will focus upon the issue of overtime, particularly mandatory or forced overtime, as a component of the broader issue of work organization, as well as CWA's scientific and practical activities regarding the topics of work organization and overtime within the U.S. telecommunications industry and more specifically with a major telecommunications company with work locations throughout the U.S. Since 1979, primarily through the efforts of our Occupational Safety and Health Department, my Union has been a vocal and active participant in the field of work organization and workplace ergonomics: developed and utilized education and training materials to increase the knowledge and awareness of the Union's leaders and members; conducted and worked with many individual members and organizations within the scientific community in conducting comprehensive scientific investigations specific to workplace ergonomics; negotiated protective collective bargaining language to ensure that members are not exposed to ergonomic hazards; introduced and supported legislation on work organization and workplace ergonomics issues; and worked with other labor organizations and safety and health professionals in institutionalizing the topic of work organization and the field of ergonomics within the U.S. and the international labor movement.

Conceptualization of the Overtime Issue

Overtime is an important work organization topic within the field of ergonomics. Defined in a holistic manner, ergonomics, i.e., designing work equipment and tools, the workplace, and the work, itself, to meet the physical and psychological characteristics and needs of workers, includes several topics specific to the design of work including overtime. Further, as interrelated factors, the discipline of ergonomics clearly indicates that the noted ergonomic variables should be considered when designing and redesigning work equipment and tools, workplaces, as well as the organization of work. From the practitioner’s viewpoint, the purpose of ergonomics is to prevent and/or minimize the occurrence of health problems related to inadequate ergonomic design, as well as to maximize worker productivity and employer efficiency and profitability.

Therefore, when considering the subject of excessive hours of work, we should conceptualize the issues associated with excessive hours of work as one of the many extremely important work organization factors within the field of ergonomics. Also, we must realize that as we move forward in conducting research and implementing research findings our focus of activity should be broadened beyond the issue of overtime to include other work organization factors such as work pace and production standards, workload, job and task content, as well as quantitative and qualitative monitoring. In other words, we need to develop a systems approach to both conducting the research, as well as implementing the research findings.

The Labor Movement and the Topic of Overtime

Hours of work and, more specifically, overtime or mandatory overtime, are subjects with which CWA and the American labor movement have much familiarity. In fact, they have been primary issues in the organizational efforts of workers and unions. One needs only to review or investigate labor history in the United States to see the significance of these issues to workers and their unions. For example, the fight for the “Eight-Hour Work Day” led half a million workers to leave their jobs and rally on May 1, 1886. Indeed, the struggle for and achievement of the “Eight-Hour Work Day” was one of the major victories of the U.S. Labor Movement.

After many years of struggle, in 1938 the American labor movement was successful in achieving a significant milestone, i.e., the passage and implementation of the U.S. Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) by the Federal Executive and Congressional branches of government. This statute, which spells out allowable hours of work including overtime, defines overtime as work performed beyond forty hours in a week. The federal law stipulates that employees who work overtime hours are to be compensated at a higher rate of pay (time and one-half one’s regular rate of pay).

In effect, overtime pay was intended to act as a disincentive discouraging employers from overworking employees. Thus, theoretically, it was assumed that employers would attempt to prevent/limit their employees from working more than 40 hours per week. Under the FLSA, overtime was never intended to become an extra source of income or an alternative to the creation of jobs with good wages and fringe benefits.

Over the last several years, as part of a campaign to weaken workers’ rights, we have witnessed employers’, including those within the U.S. telecommunications industry, promotion of long work hours. In part, as a result of these efforts, U.S. workers now work more hours than workers employed in all other countries. Also, the majority of American families now have two-family wage earners.

Scientific Research on the Overtime Issue and Worker Health Effects

Limited comprehensive scientific research has been conducted on the issue of overtime, both forced or mandatory and voluntary, and worker health. However, available studies demonstrate significant reasons for alarm. For example, studies have reported that mandatory overtime is associated with decreased alertness, increased fatigue, lower cognitive function, increased injuries, periods of extreme tension and anxiety, gastrointestinal pain or discomfort, and chest pain. Of no particular surprise, as overtime has increased CWA telecommunications members, particularly those employed in service representative occupations, have reported experiencing high rates of these health symptoms and problems.

Clearly, additional research focusing upon overtime and potential relationships to worker health effects, productivity, and absenteeism needs to be conducted. Where possible, such research should adopt a systems approach thus including all pertinent physical and work organization variables. Ideally, these efforts should be tripartite in nature and led by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health and appropriately funded through the Federal Executive and Congressional branches of our government.

CWA’s Collective Bargaining Activities and Overtime

For many years, the collective bargaining activities of the Communications Workers of America have included considerable focus upon the topic of overtime. This work has involved employers within all of the aforementioned industrial sectors in which the Union has collective bargaining agreements. However, as noted, my presentation will focus only upon the U.S. telecommunications industry and, more notably, a large telecommunications company where CWA has had collective bargaining representation since 1947. I will target the topic of overtime as it affects those telecommunications workers whose job involves customer interaction and who utilize computers to perform their work in office or building work environments.

CWA represents 130,000 telecommunications workers employed in occupations involving customer service such as customer service representatives, sales representatives, account representatives, business representatives, and directory assistance operators. They work for employers with names that are familiar to all of us including Verizon, SBC, Bell South, AT&T, and Qwest; before the divestiture of American Telephone and Telegraph (AT&T) in 1984, all of these companies were part of AT&T.

Historically, during CWA’s collective bargaining relationship with telecommunications employers, the Union has encountered occasional differences of opinion over work requirements, including the issue of overtime. Most often these differences have been resolved in such a manner that has produced important contractual improvements and, thus, improvements in working conditions. For example, some thirty years ago, CWA successfully negotiated double time pay with AT&T, i.e., the former Bell System companies, for all overtime beyond nine hours worked in a twenty-four period, i.e., one day. The Union believed that such payment would result in reduced overtime and lead to the hiring of additional employees.

For a period of time, CWA was correct in its assessment of the effects of the negotiated overtime pay language. However, during the late 1980’s and into the 1990’s, as represented telecommunications employers began to significantly reduce the size of their workforce through downsizing and early retirement measures, these employers began to impose significant amounts of overtime upon affected CWA members. In large part, this occurred as a result of a gross miscalculation of increased consumer demand for telecommunications services and products, a business strategy that proved to be most unwise.

Telecommunications employers found that as a result of downsizing they did not have sufficient numbers of skilled craft and technical employees who used computerized equipment to perform the required work. In turn, lacking an adequate number of employees to meet their business demands and under pressure from regulators to increase service, represented telecommunications companies began receiving complaints from consumers regarding poor service, as well as performance standards, fines, and penalties levied by states for these service problems.

Thus, in an effort to meet these business needs, by 1997 represented telecommunications employers began to impose seemingly countless hours of overtime upon existing employees rather than hire new employees or recall laid-off workers, thereby negating the positive effects of the previously-mentioned negotiated collective bargaining language. During 1997, CWA estimated that affected members worked millions of hours of overtime, equivalent to more than 3,000 new full-time jobs. More than one-quarter of these overtime hours were for workweeks of forty-nine hours or greater. Also, overtime was used not simply as a response to emergency situations, but rather overtime hours were consistently high during normal business conditions every month of the year.

Of interest, workers employed in both telecommunications computer workplaces and related craft jobs witnessed drastic increases in the use of forced overtime and long hours of work. Although a discussion of the radical changes within both of these workplaces and occupational categories would be extremely interesting, as noted, I will focus only upon the transformation of work within occupations that involved customer interaction and in which computers were utilized to perform the required work. Involved occupational classifications included customer service representatives, sales representatives, account representatives, business representatives, and directory assistance operators.

CWA represents 130,000 U.S. workers who are employed in these customer service occupations.

Customer service employees work with complex and often-changing information and technology. In addition, they are the interface between the new technology and the customer. In essence, their work enables the new technology to provide value to the customer while preventing information overload. Also, customer service workers help build trust and personalized service that helps retain loyal customers, market additional company services, and provide feedback to the employer regarding new services that customers are requesting. However, quite often, when work is not properly organized (and physical ergonomic working conditions are not provided), customer service workers (will) report high rates of physical and psychological health effects. Unfortunately, as a result of employer lack of adherence to and/or provision of properly designed work organization and physical ergonomic factors, CWA members have experienced and reported high rates of health problems related to these ergonomic variables.

With this brief background regarding customer service work, I will now provide a summary of recent CWA collective bargaining achievements regarding overtime required of customer service representatives employed by a large telecommunications company.

In 1998, the large telecommunications company negotiated an agreement with the Union that stipulated workers could not be forced to work two six-day weeks in a row; that the employer must first ask for volunteers for overtime work; that the company would accept reasonable excuses from employees for not working overtime; and mandatory overtime would be limited to ten hours per week for seven months of the year and fifteen hours per week for the remaining five months (with the employer choosing the months for which of the two overtime provisions would apply).

However, by 2000 the Union witnessed a general and somewhat drastic change in the company's attitude towards collective bargaining. In fact, largely driven by issues such as forced overtime, downsizing, and outsourcing, by 2000 labor-management relations between CWA and the company had deteriorated. As collective bargaining activities were initiated in 2000, the company informed the Union that it would not accept further liberalization of negotiated provisions on overtime. Although affected CWA leaders and members reacted strongly to the company's position, negotiations on other important bargaining issues such as wages, job security, and health care costs moved forward with the parties reaching a tentative agreement. However, the company continued to be unwilling to negotiate further liberalization of the (forced) overtime language.

At this point, led by the Union's national and local union leadership as well as rank-and-file members employed as customer service representatives, CWA continued to put proposed overtime language on the collective bargaining "table." Unfortunately, the company's management refused to consider the Union's proposals and told the affected CWA leaders and members to consider the language that had been tentatively agreed upon on other contractual matters as a last and final offer upon all issues. Lacking the parties' agreement on forced overtime and a number of other related topics, CWA's affected leaders and members used their last collective bargaining tool, i.e., the strike weapon. In August 2003 lacking any reasonable alternative and in a tremendous demonstration of worker and union solidarity, 37,000 of the Union's members employed in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, West Virginia, Virginia, and Washington D.C. walked off their jobs. In effect, this was the largest and most significant strike against an "information age" employer in the U.S. Of particular note, the strike was significantly related to the company's refusal to adequately respond to an issue involving work organization, in this case (forced) overtime.

Use of the strike tool or the right to withhold one's labor, certainly one of the most basic and important rights of workers in a democratic society, proved to be difficult for both CWA and the company. However, after more than two weeks on strike, the Union declared victory by negotiating an important collective bargaining settlement that achieved its primary goals regarding wages, job security, health care costs, and working conditions. Of particular importance, CWA was able to negotiate language limiting forced overtime and easing occupational stress in the noted high-pressure customer service jobs. For example, the collective bargaining agreement reduced the number of hours that customer service workers could be forced to work overtime from fifteen to seven and one-half per week (a fifty percent reduction). Addressing last minute, forced overtime assignments, the contract provided that affected workers must be provided at least two and one-half hours notice before being asked to work overtime. In addition, the agreement provided customer service representatives with thirty minutes off-line or closed time per shift to complete and process customer service orders and requests as well as improved the methods and decreased the frequency of qualitative monitoring of worker performance.

The landmark collective bargaining agreement also produced similar gains for employees in other job classifications. For example, regarding directory assistance operators, technicians, and other workers who were subject to work as much as fifteen hours of forced overtime per week, mandatory or forced overtime was capped at ten hours per week upon the parties' signing of the contract and further reduced to eight hours per week on January 1, 2001.

I am happy to report that in the 2003 collective bargaining agreement negotiated by CWA and the company, the Union was able to maintain the contractual provisions (negotiated in 2000) limiting forced overtime as well as the other aforementioned gains. However, this victory did not come without a struggle. Threatened with the company's give back demands on wages and other fringe benefits, job security, and health care costs for both active and retired employees, CWA outmaneuvered the company and negotiated an important settlement. One of the primary methods employed by CWA was a decision to not initiate a strike against the company, but rather to continue working beyond the expiration date of the contract (in August, 2003). Having spent several million dollars to defeat the Union during a strike, this tactic surprised the company's leadership and, in part, led to the present collective bargaining agreement between the parties.

In conclusion, CWA looks forward to continued work with represented employers, scientists, and occupational safety and health practitioners for the purpose of developing methods and implementing findings from scientific and workplace investigations and activities in such a manner that produces ergonomic working conditions including the elimination /minimization of forced overtime.


Communications Workers of America, CWA collective bargaining agreements with Bell Atlantic, Incorporated (2000) and Verizon (2003), Washington, DC.

Eisenbrey, R. and Bernstein, J. (2003). Eliminating the right to overtime pay. Briefing paper. Washington, DC; Economic Policy Institute.

Golden, L. and Jorgensen, H. (2001). Time after time: Mandatory overtime in the U.S. economy. Briefing paper. Washington, DC: Economic Policy Institute.

Landsbergis, P.A. (2003). The Changing Organization of Work and the Safety and Health of Working People: A Commentary. Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, 38, 1007-1011.

National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. (1992). Health Hazard Evaluation 89-299-2230. Cincinnati: Department of Health and Human Services, National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.

National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. The Changing Organization of Work andthe Safety and Health of Working People. Cincinnati: Department of Health and Human Services, National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. Publication number 2002-116.

Smith, M. J., Carayon, P., Sanders, K.J., Lim, S-Y, and LeGrande, D. (1990). Employee Stress and Health Complaints in Jobs with and without Electronic Performance Monitoring, Department of Industrial Engineering, University of Wisconsin, Madison, Wisconsin and Communications Workers of America, Washington, DC.

Spurgeon, A., Harrington, J.M., and Cooper, C.L. (1997). Health and Safety Problems Associated with Long Working Hours: A Review of the Current Position. Occupational and EnvironmentalMedicine, 54, 367-375.

Wage and Hour Division, Department of Labor. (1938). Fair Labor Standards Act. Washington, DC. Wage and Hour Division, Department of Labor.

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Extended Abstracts from Conference Presentations:

Filling the Workware Warehouse: What to Store with Regard to Long Work Hours

Industry Trends, Costs and Management of Long Working Hours

Modelling the Impact of the Components of Long Work Hours on Injuries and "Accidents"

Organized Labor’s Response to Long Work Hours

Overtime, Occupational Stress, and Related Health Outcomes: A Labor Perspective

Work Hours as a Predictor of Stress Outcomes

Working in a 24/7 Economy: Challenges for American Families

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