Workers blame health problems on job speedup

Exhaustion and injury top list of complaints

Push for productivity limits

Companies say they feel pressure to boost profits

July 05, 2002|By Nancy Cleeland | Nancy Cleeland,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

A decade-long obsession with productivity has been healthy for the corporate bottom line, but workers say they are paying for it with exhaustion and pain.

Job speedup is emerging as a top complaint for low-wage employees in sectors as diverse as food processing and tourism. It has become a pivotal bargaining issue in some union contracts. And increasingly, health and safety experts consider it a source of injury and illness.

The subject is crucial to many aging workers, who see a future in which they might be unable to keep up the pace.

In a Los Angeles pork-processing plant, workers once limited by union contract to deboning 60 hams an hour are up to 70 an hour.

Maids at a Las Vegas Strip resort have in five years gone from being required to clean 14 rooms to 17 rooms per shift.

A frozen-food plant in Marshall, Mo., runs 1,200 chicken pot pies an hour, compared with 1,100 two years ago and 800 in 1980.

Now, in small but growing numbers, many workers are taking a stand and saying "no more."

Last month, in one of the strongest responses yet, hotel housekeepers in Las Vegas put job speed ahead of wages in contract negotiations.

"In our industry, wages and benefits are perennially the No. 1 and No. 2 issue. For workload to jump to the top of the table is really something new," said Tom Snyder, a spokesman for the national hotel workers union. "That tells me that companies are trying to squeeze every last bit of energy out of their work force."

Facing demanding shareholders and cutthroat national and international competitors, business owners have been under tremendous pressure to boost output per employee since at least the early 1990s, economists said. The recent economic downturn only made matters worse.

"Profit margins got killed in the last recession, so corporations are under a lot of pressure to raise profits," said Stan Shipley, a senior economist at Merrill Lynch & Co. "How do you do that? You can't raise prices; nobody has that power anymore. The only way is to make your workers more productive."

That need, he said, "unquestionably" leads to a faster work pace.

But many workers argue that they already are operating at maximum speed and have no reserves to fall back on.

"Owners are going to have to realize these are not machines cleaning their buildings. You can't just crank up the dial," said David Huerta, senior organizer for the Service Employees International Union Local 1877 in Los Angeles, which is fighting attempts to make janitors clean downtown office buildings faster.

"People have reached their max," he said. "Asking more of them now would mean all-out war."

Labor has a long history of fighting management over speed, going back to assembly-line innovations of a century ago. At the height of union power in the 1960s, most contracts, particularly in manufacturing, contained language on workload and pace.

Today, the vast majority of workers are not under union contract, and even those who are might be vulnerable.

Christina Ramon was a member of the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union when she was fired in December from a job she had held for 24 years packing airline meals. Weeks earlier, a supervisor warned her in writing to improve "severely poor productivity."

"They wanted us to do the work of five hours in three, and that is not possible," Ramon said. Still unemployed six months later, she seems bewildered by the shift that effectively shut her out of the job market.

Ramon worked for LSG Sky Chefs, a division of German airline Lufthansa and the largest airline caterer in the world. Despite healthy growth, the company advised investors last year that industry-wide consolidation was squeezing profit margins. The company vowed in its 2001 annual report that it would respond by "improving productivity [and] standardizing processes."

Many health and safety experts suspect that a fast work pace is at the root of an epidemic of musculo-skeletal injuries, such as tendinitis. And in a few cases, they say, speedup might have caused death.

Nancy Cleeland is a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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