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Variable work schedules turn personal lives into challenges

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Alex Nabaum, Deseret Morning News

If Mark and Kimberly Hellan have any time alone together, they're likely to sleep through it.

The Midvale couple work to keep a roof over their heads, and it's not unusual for their schedules to conflict — Kimberly finishing a day shift at a Smith's grocery store just as Mark heads to his night job at a Buca di Beppo restaurant.

"When (Mark) was laid off for seven months last year, I had to get a job that let me work whenever I could," Kimberly Hellan said. "After we got out of that situation, I'm still in the same (job). . . . Time with him — wow — we haven't had any for quite some time. He gets home from work, and I'm floating out the door to go and clean (as a second job) for a while . . . .

"If we're both working at night, we can sometimes spend some time in the day together while the kids are at school. Sometimes it's just sleeping and being next to each other."

In today's 24-hour economy, the Hellans' experience is more and more common. Thanks in part to advances in technology and the emergence of the global economy, 40 percent of American workers now work mostly nonstandard hours — evenings, overnight, variable or rotating shifts, or weekends, according to Harriet B. Presser, author of "Working in a 24/7 Economy: Challenges for American Families" (Russell Sage Foundation, $39.95).

This growth in round-the-clock work has made more Americans balance the demands of their jobs against their social lives and the needs of their families. These were problems once restricted primarily to fields such as health care, law enforcement, utilities, firefighting and transportation.

"It's hard for more people today," said James Dillingham, a partner in Shiftwork Solutions LLC in San Rafael, Calif., a consulting company that specializes in resolving shift-work issues. "It's tough to coach Little League or go to church activities. This creates stress and frustration. People feel deprived. They feel resentful."

Consider Maureen Hilliard. She is married with children but in many ways feels like she's been a single mother for 16 years.

Hilliard's husband, Connie, is a car salesman whose schedule involves working nights and weekends, so the Wilmington, Del., couple is often like ships that pass in the night, she said.

"I've gone to every open house for our girls alone. Tonight is open house for my daughter . . . and I'll be there by myself," Hilliard, 50, said recently. "That's just the way it is."

It's not just adults who feel the stress. Kimberly Hellan said her daughters — Lindsay, who turns 9 on Monday, and Ciana, 6 — suffer when both she and Mark are on night shifts.

"That's the part I struggle with," Kimberly Hellan said. "I try to make every moment I have with the kids when I'm home count."

Her daughters usually are helpful and pleasant, she said, but they sometimes react to a lack of attention by "sassing back" or complaining.

"We barely make it by with friends and the ones that we trust who . . . are willing to open up their homes (to the girls)," Kimberly said.

"There is an end to the tunnel. Where is it, though?"

She said a better situation is hard to envision because her shifts change so often.

Rotating shifts can be the most challenging — 78 percent of people with that arrangement report that it is not their preference, according to a study by the Families and Work Institute.

"I couldn't function right at all," said Ken Taylor, 44, who worked regularly earlier this year from 11 p.m. to 7:30 a.m. at a supermarket in Bear, Del. "There have been times I didn't even see my kids because I'm sleeping when they leave."

Carl Woodward, director of human resources for Autoliv North America in Ogden, said Autoliv tries to keep people on the same shifts to lessen some of those problems.

The company has about 5,000 employees in Utah, he said, and they may work day shifts, night shifts or swing shifts.

"We tell them up front, 'This is going to be a graveyard shift, and you will work whatever the hours are, like 12 at night until 7 in the morning,' " Woodward said. "We've done that mainly so they have stability in their balance of work life and personal life."

He said employees who work graveyard or swing shifts make more money than people on regular day shifts, and Autoliv offers an employee assistance program and human resource personnel to help workers who have problems adjusting to their shifts.

And if employees just can't make a night shift work?

"After time, they are eligible to bid on an opening in the day shift or the swing shift," Woodward said. "In some cases, we're able to trade them. . . . For the most part, we're retaining (employees) and have not had a major need to make a shift change."

Families can make nonstandard shifts work. But that doesn't mean they like it.

Ellen Galinsky, president of the Families and Work Institute, said 63 percent of couples in 2002 reported not having enough time with their spouses, up from 50 percent in 1992.

"It's harder on the marriage than on the children," Galinsky said. "People are not skimping on their children to the extent they can. The children come first."

Often working women, particularly single mothers, suffer the most from shift work because the household activities and child-care duties still fall to them, experts said. What's more, 40 percent of women now work at least some evenings, nights or weekends on a regular basis, according to a 2004 study by the AFL-CIO.

"Shift work is definitely a concern among working women regardless of whether they're in a union or not," said Rachna Choudhry, a specialist with the AFL-CIO's program for working women. "What we're hearing from women is, they want more control over their time and ways to balance work and family."

Tara Bogia, 32, of Newark, Del., a mother of four who works four 10-hour days at a bank, said the only disagreements she has with her husband involve chores and child-care duties.

"He calls me (at work) and asks, 'What's for dinner?' I say, 'I don't know. I'm not home,' " Bogia said.

Nontraditional hours can be a strain on unmarried workers, too. It can cut into their social lives and make it difficult to have a love interest.

"All I have is my kitty cat, and sometimes I forget to feed it. It has to eat just the hard food — I usually give it hard and soft food," said Kofi Ansah, 33, a pharmacist in Bear, Del., who has a variable work schedule, including evening shifts and some weekends. "It's hard. At night I go home and take my shoes off and soak my feet."

E-mail: gkratz@desnews.com