WHEN HILLARY Rodham Clinton told delegates at the Democratic Convention on Tuesday night, "Right now, there are parents just coming home from work. Right now, there are parents just going to work," she drew attention to an often overlooked segment of society: people who work evenings or nights. Many of them will be on the job tomorrow, Labor Day, while the rest of us take the day off.
At least one working parent works a non-day shift in one-third of all two-income couples with children under age 14 in the United States.
In one in 10 couples, both spouses work different hours with no overlap, University of Maryland sociologist Harriet Presser has reported. This practice maximizes the time that at least one parent can provide child care, but it leaves few hours for both parents or the whole family to be at home awake together.
More than half of American mothers with children under age 6 work. One-fifth of these women are single parents who must turn to extended family or outsiders for child care, a major challenge when they work at night. It is telling, Presser says, that we usually call nurseries and child care centers "day care" facilities.
In the United States today, one in four working men and one in five working women - about 20 million people - are on the job at NTC hours other than 9 to 5. Their jobs carry burdens day workers seldom appreciate. Their sleep, for example, is not protected by society's taboos. Few people would phone a day worker at 2 a.m., but few hesitate to phone a night worker at 2 p.m.
Employers, too, often treat night and rotating shift workers as second-class citizens. Even companies with on-site child care centers seldom staff them at night. Day workers often have a cafeteria, but night workers frequently must rely on vending machines. The company picnic may be held when night workers usually sleep. What do such policies tell children about the way society values their parents?
The number of round-the-clock workers has been increasing by about 3 percent per year for the past decade. More and more of these workers wear white collars. They are computer specialists, stockbrokers, bankers, print and broadcast reporters and editors. One in 10 executives, administrators, and managers, the U.S. Department of Labor says, now works in the evening, or at night, or rotating shifts or on schedules other than 9 to 5. Among doctors, nurses, and other health care professionals, the proportion jumps to one in three.
The easy availability of round-the-clock services - entertainment, shopping, the Internet - is changing everyone's lives, not just those of workers who provide these services. One major consequence: Many of us are tired all the time. Donald Bilwise of Emory University Medical School in Atlanta compared healthy adults in the 1930s with a similar group in the 1980s. The percentage describing nighttime sleep troubles stayed the same. But the contemporary group reported much more daytime fatigue and less "pep," Bilwise writes in the July 1996 issue of the journal Sleep.
Round-the-clock schedules have given rise to the notion that people can sleep whenever it is convenient. That turns out not to be true. Power plants, computers, MRI scanners, and cash registers function equally well at all hours of the day, but the humans who run them do not. Biologic clocks, deep in the brain, program us for daytime activity and nighttime sleep. The beat goes on, regardless of the hours we keep. The nighttime hours are times of diminished alertness. People who are awake then have more accidents on the job and on the road.
Proposals to help some round-the-clock workers - truckers and pilots, for example - get more sleep and function at a higher level when awake are being debated on Capitol Hill. As usual, the issue is dollars versus possible risks to public safety and benefits to workers' quality of life. The need to make time for children is seldom mentioned. The anti-regulatory mood in Washington does not auger well for new work/rest laws. But updating rules to acknowledge biological time might benefit those who work around the clock, their children and the rest of the population as well. That could give all of us a new reason to celebrate next Labor Day.