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Overworked no more
National group working hard to give Americans a break

- Teresa Castle, Chronicle Staff Writer
Saturday, October 22, 2005

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Peter Moylan remembers the week when he toiled away from 8 a.m. to past midnight four nights straight to finish a project at a commercial real estate company in San Francisco.

"It was 2:30 a.m. when I was done, but I needed one question answered about our technology,'' he recalls. "I e-mailed our tech guy, assuming I would have an answer when I came back to work at 8 a.m. ... Within a few seconds, the tech guy responds with an answer. He was in Washington, D.C., it was 5:30 a.m., and he was hard at work."

This is the modern-day world of work -- or overwork.

While his marathon hours may have been extreme, Moylan, 58, is not unique in working long hours or wanting to work less.

A survey by the Families and Work Institute in New York found that 1 in 3 Americans feels chronically overworked, and a study by the American Sleep Institute found that 50 percent of Americans would be willing to work fewer hours for less pay.

As companies across the nation feverishly downsize and restructure to improve their bottom lines, overtime hours have crept up and now average four to five hours a week, 25 percent more than a decade ago, says Lonnie Golden, an overtime expert at Pennsylvania State University.

A lot of that is forced overtime, and 50- or 60-hour workweeks are not uncommon. Vacations are also shrinking, the victim of all-in-one leave banks that force workers to choose between sick leave and time off to de-stress. A recent AFL-CIO poll found that a quarter of all workers get no vacation at all.

But a movement is afoot to change that.

A loose coalition of organizations -- including some in the Bay Area -- is pushing for changes in public policy to shield U.S. workers from the relentless push to put in more hours on the job.

On Monday, these groups will be bringing their message to the people in Take Back Your Time Day, with events scheduled across the nation, including a workshop at San Jose State University and a "Nap-In" at 1 p.m. at Justin Herman Plaza in San Francisco.

This year, to mark the 65th anniversary of the 40-hour work week taking effect, the organizers of the 3-year-old event are rolling out an ambitious legislative agenda.

The campaign, dubbed "Time to Care," calls for:

-- At least a week of paid sick leave.

-- At least three weeks of paid vacation.

-- A limit on compulsory overtime, so workers can accept or refuse overtime work.

-- Paid childbirth leave for all parents.

-- Incentives to make it easier for Americans to work part time if they choose, including hourly wage parity, protection of promotions and prorated benefits for part-timers.

-- Making Election Day a holiday to make it easier for people to vote.

In a culture hooked on ever-increasing productivity, even the organizers admit that it may be a tough sell.

"We're taking on an elephant here," says John de Graaf, the national coordinator of Take Back Your Time Day. But he argues that overwork is not an individual issue but a public policy issue that needs to be addressed on a governmental level.

De Graaf, a filmmaker from Seattle, became interested in the overwork issue while making "Affluenza," a tongue-in-cheek documentary about the nation's addiction to getting and spending.

The campaign is not against work, he is quick to add, but overwork. He rattles off a list of problems spawned by working long hours -- some of them bad for our waistlines, like fast food and lack of time to exercise; some bad for our souls, like stress, burnout, and isolation from family and friends.

When it comes to vacations, the picture is not much brighter.

The fact that there is no legal guarantee of a vacation in the United States gives it the "whiff of illegitimacy," says Joe Robinson, head of the "Work to Live" campaign, a member of the Take Back Your Time coalition. Many workers have to plead for their vacations or apologize for taking them.

Too often, Robinson jokes, "your boss would rather get a root canal than give you time off."

A few politicians are already working on legislation to win new guarantees for working people.

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., introduced legislation last year to mandate one week of paid sick leave. And Rep. Lynn Woolsey, D-Petaluma, has co-sponsored a bill called "the Balancing Act" that would expand family leave provisions and provide prorated benefits for part-time workers, among other provisions.

However, the latest legislation to raise the minimum wage -- this time from $5.15 an hour to $6.25 -- was defeated in the Senate on Wednesday.

Critics of government work regulations say the drive for new worker rights is misguided.

"Firms care about total compensation. They will take back in cash what they give up in benefits,'' says Peter Van Doren, editor of Regulation, a journal published by the Cato Institute in Washington.

Others, like Jim Anderson, a member of the Silicon Valley Leadership Group and asset officer with Silicon Valley Bank, point out that the world has changed a lot since the union movement of the 1930s won rights like the 40-hour workweek and the minimum wage.

In the era of globalization, he says, "a flexible labor force" is needed to respond to shifting worldwide markets. If companies feel constrained by new work rules, they can just move their operations offshore.

Ground zero for the overwork phenomenon may be Silicon Valley, says Richard Hobbs, director of human relations for Santa Clara County.

Hobbs, 55, also heads Human Agenda, a nonprofit group that promotes work-life balance and, in that capacity, he is the driving force behind a campaign called "40 is enough" that aims to put a legal limit on mandatory overtime for all workers, including salaried employees, and to increase the minimum wage to $8.50 so low-wage earners don't have to work so many hours to survive.

Overwork is as much of an issue for low-wage earners in the county as for Silicon Valley's software engineers, he says. A recent study by the local janitors' union found that the average workweek was 55 hours, and in many families, both parents were working those hours.

And in the private sector, tech workers face enormous expectations to produce.

"A lot of them are literally living on the job," he says, eating breakfast, lunch and dinner there, working out at the gym and going back to their cubicles to do more work.

"Their badge of honor is working long hours, but they don't stop to ask, 'What constitutes success? Is it making a lot, or being there for your wife or husband, children, community, neighbors and society?' "

Even people who try to escape the frantic world of overwork find it hard to do.

Rhonda Gutenberg, 48, quit her job with a leadership development firm in 1999 to try her hand as a travel photographer. She did well for a few years, but her husband lost his job shortly afterward, so she went back to work full time. But she found that full time is a lot fuller these days.

Now she commutes from Marin County to San Mateo County; travels to her company's five offices in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Houston, Dallas and Denver; and is on her cell phone to headquarters in Minneapolis. But on Friday, she left for a quick two-week vacation in Nepal, and one thing she doesn't plan to do is work, she says.

"No phones, no e-mail, nothing."


Learn more about Take Back Your Time Day

Workers' rights activists across the country will hold events Monday encouraging people to spend less time working and more time living.

For more information, go online to www.timeday.org.

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2005 San Francisco Chronicle