FMC Corp.'s farm-chemical business is humming. The result is that Allen Bailey worked all but four days between November and June -- including weekends, including Christmas, including the first anniversary of his wedding to Sharon Bailey.
Sixty-hour, seven-day work weeks are standard for the chemical technician. At least twice a month he works 16 hours straight. After pulling an overnight shift he's lucky to return to his Mount Winans townhouse in time to kiss his wife goodbye before she leaves for work.
"Sometimes I tell him it feels real funny being married to someone and yet still feel so lonely -- like you're not really together," said Sharon Bailey, a budget analyst at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Howard County.
Across the country, manufacturers such as FMC are working their people harder than they have since the early part of this century. A thriving economy, a dearth of skilled labor and the high cost of hiring have driven factories to pile on the overtime.
"This is the kind of thing you see after six years of uninterrupted growth," said Andrew Paparozzi, chief economist for the National Association of Printers and Lithographers and a close observer of labor markets. "We've had this tremendous burst of activity in the last six months, and the only way we could meet it is with expanded overtime."
Average overtime for U.S. factory workers reached 4.9 hours a week in April -- up from 3.3 hours six years ago and the highest ever measured by the government's Bureau of Labor Statistics.
And that's just the average. Tales of 70-hour weeks and overtime-fat paychecks are common; Herculean, 100-hour stints aren't unheard of.
"There are an awful lot of upfront costs just to put a guy on the payroll," said Alex Doyle, president of Micro-Machining Inc., a Baltimore shop where workers have been averaging 48 to 55 hours a week lately. "It's gotten to the point where it makes sense to increase overtime for a guy already on the payroll rather than incurring the cost of hiring an employee."
But now, employees are starting to complain -- big paychecks notwithstanding -- adding to the national debate on quality of life, the workplace and compensatory time off.
About 185 workers at FMC's Baltimore plant walked off the job a week ago after the company refused to limit the work week to 68 hours and to give workers 16 hours off after they've worked three consecutive 16-hour shifts.
The dispute follows several recent strikes about overtime at U.S. automobile plants, including ongoing troubles at General Motors factories this year.
In each case, the dominant issue isn't pay or benefits. It's a new problem for U.S. blue-collar labor: too much work.
"There's no such thing in my household as quality time," said Allen Bailey, who has two daughters, 8 and 18 years old. "My wife says, 'You pay more attention to FMC than you do to me and the family.' "
Driven by robust world demand for FMC's herbicides and pesticides, several of the company's Baltimore lines work seven days a week, all day, all night. Many workers pull a 16-hour double shift at least twice a month when they switch from nights to days, days to evenings or evenings to nights. Two or three 16-hour shifts in a row -- with eight hours off in between -- are common, payroll records supplied by the union show.
They're entirely legal.
What's to prevent an employer from assigning a 100-hour work )) week and firing anybody who can't handle it? "Nothing," said Ronald Ehrenberg, labor economist at Cornell University in New York. "The only limit for most jobs is, after 40 hours a week, you must pay time and a half," or 150 percent of the basic hourly wage.
Americans are no strangers to longer, tougher work weeks this decade, as chronicled by Harvard Professor Juliet Schor in "The Overworked American."
But grueling work schedules have become especially apparent in factories, where on-the-spot attendance is required every minute in a shift. And unlike white-collar work weeks, manufacturing hours are precisely measured by the government.
Missed birthdays, holidays and anniversaries are routine for FMC workers. They're supposed to get vacation days, but many said they have trouble finding coverage for the time off. Volunteer replacements are scarce when your co-workers are already punching in seven days a week.
"Sometimes when I go to work for eight hours, it feels like I've only worked half a day," said Thomas Ratley, a chemical technician. "I can't get anything done in my house. We bought an entertainment center -- my wife had to put it together because I wasn't home."
Failure to work a scheduled shift brings reprimand and termination. Four people have been fired recently for missing work, workers said, although a plant spokesman denied people were dismissed for refusing overtime. Employees "are expected to start work at their scheduled time," says the plant's attendance policy, "work all scheduled hours and work any scheduled overtime."