Costs of Forced Overtime Too High, Says Report

A new report finds that stress- and fatigue-related problems brought on by excessive overtime is costing industry somewhere between $150 and $300 billion per year.

Let''s pretend that you are involved in a car accident and suffer an injury. You are rushed to the emergency room of your local hospital, where a doctor who has worked 50 or 60 hours that week, maybe even 15 hours or so that day, examines you. He or she prescribes care that is administered by a nurse who has already worked 12 hectic hours that day. Feel confident you will receive the best possible care?

Probably not, and according to a new report from the Economic Policy Institute (EPI), many healthcare professionals don''t think you''re receiving the best possible care either.

"Time After Time: Mandatory Overtime in the U.S. Economy," co-authored by Penn State economist Lonnie Golden, lays out economic and social reasons that the Pennsylvania legislature needs to take prompt action to address forced overtime. The report found that costs to industry alone are between $150 and $300 billion per year in stress- and fatigue-related problems brought on by excessive overtime.

The report takes a particularly hard look at forced overtime in the healthcare industry, where experts say doctors, nurses and aides are all attributing injuries and mistakes with patient care to fatigue related to excessive overtime. The healthcare industry is also experiencing a high rate of turnover, due in part, say researchers, to employees'' desire to spend more time with their families.

"Mandatory overtime can play havoc with the family lives of workers," said Stephen Herzenberg, executive director of Keystone Research Center. "This is the 21st century - we need to give workers the option of making their children a higher priority than having to work additional hours, often with no notice."

The report notes:

  • Almost one-third of the workforce regularly works more than the standard 40-hour week.
  • One-fifth works more than 50 hours.
  • Although the recession has curbed the rate of mandatory overtime in some sectors, it is still a widespread practice in others. A poll, cited in the report, found that 43 percent of critical care nurses work in hospitals where overtime is mandatory.
  • A national survey of nurses found 56 percent believe the time they have for each patient has decreased and 75 percent feel that the quality of patient care has decreased in the last two years.
  • Medical residents cited fatigue as a cause for their serious mistakes in four out of 10 cases.
  • Nurse''s aides were second only to truck drivers in the total number of cases of disabling injuries and illness attributable to excessive overtime.

With the economy in recession, many employers are requiring their current workers to put in more hours rather than hire new employees - even if it means paying an overtime premium and risking more accidents by employees impaired by fatigue.

"Mandatory overtime is driving nurses and other healthcare workers out of hospitals and has become one of the chief causes for the serious shortage of healthcare workers. Hospitals should not be allowed to use forced overtime to compensate for insufficient staffing," said Eileen Connelly, secretary-treasurer of SEIU District 1199, which represents 16,000 health care workers in Pennsylvania.

In Pennsylvania, two identical pieces of legislation (H.B. 1959 and S.B. 1102) would ban mandatory overtime for all health care workers, except in the case of an emergency.

In a policy statement on jobs released last Sept. 28, United Pennsylvanians (www.unitedpa.org), a coalition that includes leaders from the religious, labor, business, civic, and policy communities, joined the campaign against mandatory overtime. According to the statement, "Forcing workers [to work mandatory overtime] can lead to children being unattended and create a vicious circle in which forced overtime leads workers to quit, with more mandatory overtime for remaining workers, and then more quits. In the long run, prohibiting forced overtime would benefit employers as well as workers and families."

by Sandy Smith ([email protected])

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