Academic journal article Monthly Labor Review

A Time to Work: Recent Trends in Shift Work and Flexible Schedules

Academic journal article Monthly Labor Review

A Time to Work: Recent Trends in Shift Work and Flexible Schedules

Article excerpt

Numerous US. workers have work schedules different from the standard 9 a. m.-to-5p. m., Monday-through-Friday, work shift; the demands of the industry are the chief determinant of the use of shift work and flexible schedules


The traditional work schedule for an American employee has long been 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday. However, an examination of data from the Work Schedules and Work at Home survey, a special supplement to the Current Population Survey (CPS) conducted in May 2004, reveals that substantial proportions of workers' schedules do not fit this paradigm. For instance, nearly one-third of wage and salary workers have flexible schedules on their primary jobs, meaning that they can vary their beginning and ending hours; about one-fifth work a shift other than a regular daytime shift on their primary job; and a slightly smaller proportion works on Saturday, Sunday, or both. The use of alternate shifts and flexible work schedules is often determined by the demands of the industry, rather than by workers' preferences. However, schedule considerations and flexibility are influential factors in the career-planning and labor market decisions of many workers.

The Work Schedules and Work at Home survey obtained information on individuals' work schedules or shifts and on whether they did any job-related work at home. The data presented in this article pertain to work schedules and alternate shifts. Because of the high prevalence of both shift work and flexitime among parttime workers, the article analyzes total employment, including that of both full- and part-time workers in most cases. (Where appropriate, data are analyzed separately for part-time workers; for further information about the survey, see the appendix.)

Flexible work schedules

In May 2004, 36.4 million wage and salary workers, or about 30 percent of all such workers, were able to vary their work hours to some degree. This percentage was somewhat lower than that (30.7 percent) in May 2001, but about the same as in May 1997. Such flexibility provides workers with increased control over their time, enhancing their ability to balance competing demands at work and at home. In a competitive labor market, companies can choose to offer their workers the freedom afforded by flexible schedules in order to improve both morale and loyalty to the company. (1) The proportion of workers able to vary their work hours rose from 1985 to 1997, but has remained fairly steady thereafter. The following tabulation shows the percentage of wage and salary workers with flexible schedules, by sex and the presence of their own children, for selected years over the past two decades:

                          1985   1991   1997   2001   2004

Total, 16 years and
  older                   13.6   16.0   29.9   30.7   29.6
    Men                   13.9   15.9   30.0   30.8   29.3
      With own children
        under 18 years    13.1   15.6   30.7   31.8   29.8
    Women                 13.2   16.0   29.7   30.6   29.9
      With own children
        under 18 years    13.3   16.3   30.8   30.7   30.2

Since 1985, the proportions of employed men and women able to vary their work hours have been about equal. (2) The same is true of both mothers and fathers who work. Within each of these groups, the proportion of workers able to vary the times they started and ended work more than doubled between 1985 and 1997, after which it has remained at about that level.

The nature of the industry is one of the main determinants of the prevalence of flexible schedules. For example, in 2004, fewer workers (24.8 percent) had flexible schedules in the manufacturing industry, in which set work schedules are frequently necessary, than in financial activities or in professional and business services, in which nearly 40 percent of workers were able to vary their schedules. (3) (See table 1.)

Despite the fact that flexible schedules have remained relatively steady overall, several industries exhibited recent declines in the proportion of workers on such schedules. …

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