"I Raised My Kids on the Bus": Transit Shift Workers' Coping Strategies for Parenting

By Grosswald, Blanche | Journal of Sociology & Social Welfare, September 2002 | Go to article overview
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"I Raised My Kids on the Bus": Transit Shift Workers' Coping Strategies for Parenting


Grosswald, Blanche, Journal of Sociology & Social Welfare


The study investigated coping strategies for parenting of transit shift workers, an urban, blue-collar, primarily ethnic minority population. It involved a qualitative, grounded theory approach, using individual interviews with 30 San Francisco bus drivers.

The principal aspect of the job impacting transit workers' relationships with their children was the lack of time they had together. Drivers had to be creative to find ways to care for their children. They could not rely exclusively on formal child care because hours at childcare centers did not match their job schedules. Coping strategies for care included taking children on the bus, working shifts complementary to those of spouses, using siblings as surrogate parents, substituting material gifts for time, and separating work from family.

Future research cannot group shift work as one composite. Shiftworking doctors and nurses experience different working conditions from those of bus drivers that may lead to variations in parental caring. Policy suggestions include child care services and shorter shifts.

Introduction: Shift Work, Transit Work and Family Relationships

How do male and female city bus drivers who work 10 to 12 hours a day engage with the process of raising children? This paper describes a case study of shift-working bus drivers--or transit operators, as they prefer to be called--in dual-income families in the city of San Francisco. It draws on existing literature in the areas of work and family, shift work, transit work, their respective relationships to family, and the new concept of "cultures of care," defined as the people, institutions, and ideas that provide care (Hochschild, 1999).

Shift work is a type of work in which employees work hours other than the standard hours of 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. or other than the standard workweek, Mondays through Fridays in the United States. Most research on shift work involves its impact on the physical and mental health of the individual shift worker.

Shift work has existed as far back as ancient Roman times, when deliveries were limited to night hours in order to decrease traffic (Monk and Folkard, 1992, p. 2). What has changed since the advent of electric lighting and the Industrial Revolution is the number and percentage of shift workers. The estimate for the percentage of shift work within the total workforce for the United States was 22% in 1986 (Mayshar and Halevy, 1997). More contemporary estimates are close to 45% (Presser, 1995). Thus, shift work is widespread and increasing in the United States.

Early research on shift work and families examined male shift workers (Kanter, 1977). Costa's more recent literature review (1996) refers to evidence that shift work can cause hardships in sustaining family relationships and lead to detrimental consequences for marriages and children. Harriet Presser (2000), one of the best known researchers in the area of shift work and families, just published a study based on data for married couples from the National Survey of Families and Households. She found that working night shifts increased the odds of divorce by a factor of 6 for men who had children and were married less than five years, compared to men who worked regular days. For women who worked night shifts and shared the characteristics just mentioned, the relative risk of divorce was 3.

Transit work refers to any job whose primary responsibility is transportation. As with shift work, most studies on transit work have examined its impact on employee health. Studies of San Francisco drivers found higher levels of hypertension associated with increased time on the job (Ragland, Greiner, Holman, and Fisher, 1997).

Transit operator (bus driver) shifts are designed with the scheduling needs of the passengers in mind. The structure of transit scheduling is to fit the bimodal distribution of commuter peak times.

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