Many U.S. workplaces grow harsher

LOS ANGELES TIMESApril 30, 2013 

BIZ WRK-HARSHWORK 1 LA

Lisa Weber of Westfield, Mass., has been with the National Envelope Co. for 27 years, since she was 19. She was recently asked to increase her responsibilities from operating two machines to three, which she says is too much for her.“I’m worn out,” she says. “I get home and I can barely stand up.” Founded in 1952, National Envelope was acquired in 2010 by a private equity firm. The company has fewer than 2,500 employees now, half the number it had in 2001.

CAROLYN COLE — Los Angeles Times / MCT

The envelope factory where Lisa Weber works is hot and noisy. A fan she brought from home helps her keep cool as she maneuvers around whirring equipment to make her quota: 750 envelopes an hour, up from 500 a few years ago.

There's no resting: Between the video cameras and the constant threat of layoffs, Weber knows she must always be on her toes.

The drudgery of work at National Envelope Co. used to be relieved by small perks - an annual picnic, free hams and turkeys over the holidays - but those have long since been eliminated.

"It's harder for me to want to get up and go to work than it used to be," says Weber, 47.

The relentless drive for efficiency at U.S. companies has created a new harshness in the workplace.

In their zeal to make sure that not a minute of time is wasted, companies are imposing rigorous performance quotas, forcing many people to put in extra hours, paid or not. Video cameras and software keep tabs on worker performance, tracking their computer keystrokes and the time spent on each customer service call.

Employers once wanted long-term relationships with their workers. At many companies, that's no longer the case.

Businesses are asking employees to work harder without providing the kinds of rewards, financial and psychological, that were once routine.

Employers figure that if some people quit, there are plenty of others looking for jobs.

"Wages are stagnant, jobs are less secure, work is more intense - it's a much tougher world," says Paul Osterman, co-director of the MIT Sloan Institute for Work and Employment Research.

"Employers have become much more aggressive about restructuring work in ways that push for higher levels of productivity."

Work is seeping into off-hours, as bosses pepper employees with email messages at night and on weekends. They monitor employees' Facebook pages and Twitter feeds for comments that conflict with the corporate message.

The growing demands at the workplace mean people have less time to spend with their families or to help out with youth sports or other volunteer activities.

Matt Taibi of Providence, R.I., routinely works 12-hour days as a driver for UPS. The company would rather pay him and other drivers overtime instead of hiring more workers.

Taibi has no complaints about his pay. He makes $32.35 an hour, plus benefits, and has job security as a Teamster.

But he wonders how much longer he can keep up the breakneck pace.

"There's more and more push towards doing more with less workers," says Taibi, 35. "There are more stops, more packages, more pickups. What's happening is that we're stretched to our limits and beyond."

Changes such as these began decades ago and accelerated during the Great Recession, when high unemployment enabled companies to offer less and demand more.

Although the economy is improving, companies are still squeezing labor costs to contend with global competition and boost profits, aided by an array of technologies and management strategies.

There are exceptions, especially in knowledge-based industries where talent is scarce.

In California's Silicon Valley, technology companies try to retain software engineers with an ever-increasing array of benefits.

But those jobs go largely to engineers educated at elite universities. Job-seekers who don't have a college education or specialized skills face a working world that is far less stable and rewarding.

Santos Castaneda saw his job unloading trucks in the warehouses of the Inland Empire go from a full-time position to a temporary one, in which he never knew from week to week how often he'd be called in or how much he'd earn.

"They say, 'If you don't want to work, you can leave, but there are hundreds of people waiting for a job,'" he says.

This points to the emergence of a two-tiered workforce in which fewer people can expect the type of employment relationship that Americans aspired to in the past.

"If you're a highly skilled employee with highly marketable talents, they're going to pay dearly for you. But if you're a relatively fungible (replaceable) person, with nothing that separates you from anybody else, the risks and costs have been shifted to you at a dramatic rate," says Rita Gunther McGrath, a management professor at Columbia University's business school.

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