With companies still reluctant to hire, stress, overtime take toll on employees


February 21, 1993|By Kim Clark | Kim Clark,Staff Writer

Work is taking over Bill Bettridge's life these days.

Sixty-hour workweeks haven't left him much time to tinker with his car. Projects in his house are piling up. And he hasn't seen a movie in months.

"I go home, watch TV till I fall asleep, and come to work," says Mr. Bettridge, who manages the Shields Rubber Inc. industrial ,, hose warehouse in Columbia.

He's driven by a combination of hope and fear. Hope, because sales have been improving. Fear, because he's watched layoffs cut the warehouse staff by a third. You work hard, he says of himself and the eight other survivors, "when you see other people in the company booted out."

Across the nation, there are signs that survivors such as Mr. Bettridge are working longer and harder than ever to meet the demands of an improving economy.

Business productivity hit a 16-year high last year. Work hours for manufacturing employees hit a 25-year quarterly high in the last three months of 1992. Meanwhile, day care centers are keeping children of working parents longer, and chiropractors say complaints of over stressed backs are soaring.

In past economic recoveries, U.S. companies have been quick to add workers.

But today, many major companies -- Sears, IBM, General Motors and Boeing, among others -- are continuing to cut staff. And even employers who are benefiting from an upturn in business are slow to hire because of fears they are seeing another false economic rebound. Already, Labor Secretary Robert Reich has noted, the current recovery is 3 million jobs behind the job creation pattern set in past economic cycles.

And while some say the delays in hiring are temporary, doing more with fewer workers may become a way of life.

U.S. companies are demanding more and more from workers to meet competition from places like Japan, where "death by overwork" is common enough that there is a word for it -- "karoshi." And as technology improves, many businesses are absorbing new work without adding workers.

That may mean a permanent acceleration in the pace of work in America. Audrey Freedman, a labor economist in New York, warns, "Work in the future involves more stress."

Hesitant hiring

Although the recession officially ended two years ago, many employers say they aren't hiring because they haven't seen any upturn yet.

Larry Lucas used to take his two young daughters to the driving range every Saturday to play with them and keep his swing in sync. But he hasn't spent a Saturday morning with his children or his clubs in months.

He has been busy at his Northeast Baltimore insurance office, looking for some way to boost the family business. Lucas Insurance Inc. revenues from policies dropped by more than $100,000 last year; this year, the bleeding has slowed but hasn't stopped.

The office staff has dropped from six to three in the last year. xTC And Mr. Lucas says he would consider hiring only a commissioned salesperson.

"I'm working 50-hour weeks and making the same, if not less, money" as a couple of years ago, when he had a 40-hour workweek and time for a couple of rounds of golf a week, he says.

While employers such as Mr. Lucas can't afford to replace workers, some prosperous companies are holding back because distrust of the future.

Brookings Institution economist Gary Burtless notes that people saw improvements in the economy in the winters of 1991 and 1992, only to watch layoffs and business confidence lapse again.

"That has really spooked them," he says. "This time around they are going to act very, very cautiously."

Andrew Passmore, treasurer of Bell-More Labs in Hampstead is one of the spooked.

The 12-person contract pharmaceutical company "could use a couple more people," but Mr. Passmore says he's "afraid to hire."

It isn't just the economy he fears. "I'm worried about what President Clinton is going to do."

Mr. Clinton's attacks on drug prices and his plans to lower health care costs could affect Bell-More's business. And the president's moves to boost fringe benefits threaten to make it more expensive to hire new workers at Bell-More, which already pays as much as 40 percent of the value of each worker's salary to provide full benefits.

"Before I hire [more workers], I want to make sure I don't have to fire them," Mr. Passmore says. "Firing kind of wrenches you."

Many employers are fighting such uncertainty by hiring temporary orpart-time workers, who usually don't receive costly fringe benefits. The number of part-timers has risen 3.5 percent in the last two years, while full-time employment inched up by only half a percent. But most employers' first response to an upturn is to make existing workers put in overtime, says University of Maryland economist Martin Baily.

Still, even if employers were sure of an improving economy and stable political atmosphere, many would not rehire or replace their laid-off workers, some warn.

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