A decade-long obsession with productivity has been healthy for the corporate bottom line, but workers say they are paying for it with exhaustion and pain.
Job speedup is emerging as a top complaint for low-wage employees in sectors as diverse as food processing and tourism. It has become a pivotal bargaining issue in some union contracts. And increasingly, health and safety experts consider it a source of injury and illness.
The subject is crucial to many aging workers, who see a future in which they would be unable to keep up the pace.
In a Los Angeles pork-processing plant, workers once limited by union contract to boning 60 hams an hour are up to 70 an hour.
Maids at a Las Vegas Strip resort have in five years gone from cleaning 14 rooms to 17 rooms per shift.
A frozen-food plant in Marshall, Mo., runs 1,200 chicken pot pies an hour, compared with 1,100 two years ago and 800 in 1980.
Speedup takes its toll in many ways, such as a veteran food- service employee being fired for failing to keep up with new production quotas or a young immigrant's fatal slip of a knife on a fast meat-cutting line. In small but growing numbers, many workers are taking a stand and saying "no more."
Last month, in one of the strongest responses yet, hotel housekeepers in Las Vegas put job speed ahead of wages in contract negotiations.
"In our industry, wages and benefits are perennially the No. 1 and No. 2 issue. For workload to jump to the top of the table is really something new," said Tom Snyder, a spokesman for the national hotel workers union. "That tells me that companies are trying to squeeze every last bit of energy out of their work force."
Facing demanding shareholders and cutthroat national and international competitors, business owners have been under tremendous pressure to boost output per employee since at least the early 1990s, economists said. The recent economic downturn only made matters worse.
"Profit margins got killed in the last recession, so corporations are under a lot of pressure to raise profits," said Stan Shipley, a senior economist at Merrill Lynch & Co. "How do you do that? You can't raise prices; nobody has that power anymore. The only way is to make your workers more productive."
That need, he said, "unquestionably" leads to a faster work pace.
But many workers argue that they already are operating at maximum speed and have no reserves to fall back on.
"Owners are going to have to realize these are not machines cleaning their buildings. You can't just crank up the dial," said David Huerta, senior organizer for the Service Employees International Union Local 1877 in Los Angeles, which is fighting attempts to make janitors clean downtown office buildings faster.
"People have reached their max," he said. "Asking more of them now would mean all-out war."
Labor has a long history of fighting management over speed, going back to assembly-line innovations of a century ago. At the height of union power in the 1960s, most contracts, particularly in manufacturing, contained language on workload and pace.
Today, the vast majority of workers are not under union contract, and even those who are may be vulnerable.
Just ask Christina Roman, a member of the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union when she was fired in December from a job she had held for 24 years packing airline meals. Weeks earlier, a supervisor warned her in writing to improve "severely poor productivity."
"They wanted us to do the work of five hours in three, and that is not possible," said Roman, who lives in Hawthorne. Still unemployed six months later, she seems bewildered by the shift that effectively shut her out of the job market.
"All those years, I did quality work," she said. "Now they just want people who work fast."
Roman worked for LSG Sky Chefs, a division of German airline Lufthansa and the largest airline caterer in the world. Despite healthy growth, the company advised investors last year that industrywide consolidation was squeezing profit margins. The company vowed in its 2001 annual report that it would respond by "improving productivity [and] standardizing processes."
About that time, Roman and several other workers said, strangers toting clipboards and stopwatches appeared at the company's three Los Angeles-area kitchens. They measured each movement, calculating the minutes it took to load a cart or to set up a tray with napkins, cookies, bread, butter and a salad.
Representatives of Sky Chefs declined to be interviewed but issued a written response to questions. The company acknowledged that workers were studied and timed and that rates were set for each task.
"We use these average times as a tool to help us ensure that the right number of employees are on duty at the right times," the statement said, "not as a way to hold workers to a time quota."
Nevertheless, workers must now keep detailed logs and explain whenever they fall below production guidelines. Several said they were threatened with dismissal if they failed to keep up with the scheduled pace.
Jorge Gamboa, who sets up meal trays for American Airlines flights, was warned in writing May 7 that his performance was "far below company standards of 180 trays per hour."
Gamboa, a 13-year Sky Chefs employee who works with a strained elbow, said the rate is impossible to maintain.
"It's OK to go this fast once in a while," he said, "but when you do it every day, it damages you."
Worker advocates say Sky Chefs is no exception. As evidence, they point to the remarkable productivity gains of the last decade, which continued through boom and recession.
Economists note that those gains were driven largely by factors such as increased computer use and more efficient work practices that cut idle time.
Although new technology and business practices have helped workers become more efficient, they also have eroded their ability to control the pace and volume of work.
For example, the use of bar codes and scanners in warehouses cuts the time workers spend searching for merchandise but also makes those workers highly replaceable. Meat-cutting factories have significantly boosted productivity but also reduced the need for skilled butchers.
"Workers are now being called upon to be very flexible and do whatever the employer wants," said Bill Dickens, an economist at the Brookings Institution in Washington, "and that can include working harder and faster."
Unlike wages and benefits, though, the pace of work is difficult to quantify or to compare across industries. So despite growing interest, evidence of speedup remains largely anecdotal.
"It seems soft and mushy, but what people are saying is meaningful," said Bill Kojola, an industrial hygienist in the AFL-CIO's Health and Safety Department. "At some point, there's no more to squeeze."
Many health and safety experts suspect that fast work pace is at the root of an epidemic of musculoskeletal injuries, such as tendinitis. And in a few severe cases, they say, speedup may have led to death.
In Nebraska, an immigrant worker at a meatpacking plant died two years ago after slicing open his chest with a boning knife near the end of his shift. The United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, which represented the worker, said excessive workload contributed to the death.
The accident prompted a written warning from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to the employer, Excel Corp.
"Added workload could cause the employee, working with sharp instruments, to work at an accelerated rate, increasing the potential for knife injury," the Oct. 4, 2000, OSHA letter said. "This practice should be curtailed."
In a paper released in May, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health identified speedup and other changes in work organization as a priority for research.
"To compete more effectively, many companies have restructured themselves and downsized their work forces," the authors said. "The revolutionary changes occurring in today's workplace have far outpaced our understanding of their implications for work-life quality and safety, and health on the job."
Labor union veterans remember battles over production speeds going back decades.
Jim Rodriguez, an organizer with the United Food and Commercial Workers, represented workers in Los Angeles meatpacking plants 30 years ago, when contracts contained strong protections.
"We had the right to aggrieve workloads. We had the right to conduct studies and adjust the speed if we had to," Rodriguez said. "We won many an arbitration case that then set standards, like 60 hams an hour on a boning line."
To settle a dispute at the Farmer John pork-processing plant in Vernon, Rodriguez rigged a mechanical counter under a table, which a worker could tap with his knee each time he boned a ham. The union documented a speed of 67 hams an hour, seven more than management claimed, and won the right to slow the line, he said.
Many such hard-won gains were lost, however, as union jobs disappeared and organized labor struggled to hang on to those that were left. In that tough bargaining environment, unions generally found it easier to concede control over work speed than accept cuts in wages and benefits.
Today, the same line runs at 70 hams a minute, Rodriguez said. Farmer John executives did not return calls for comment.
"We don't have the work- standard language [in the contract] anymore--that was taken out long ago," Rodriguez said. "Even if we did, I don't know if we could slow it down. The whole mentality of this country is: 'Hey, that's featherbedding. You can't tell an employer he can't go faster.' "
But more and more these days, workers are trying to do just that. The most notable case to date is that of the Las Vegas hotel housekeepers, who by threatening to strike forced work speed to the top of the bargaining agenda.
The Culinary Workers Union, which is affiliated with the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees, did its own statistical analysis that showed an increase during the last 10 years in the number of rooms cleaned per worker. The average size of rooms and number of fixtures in them also grew, said D. Taylor, chief officer of the union local.
The union also commissioned a study of housekeeper health by UC San Francisco occupational epidemiologist Niklas Krause, who found high levels of stress, pain and unreported injuries.
Housekeepers, most of whom are immigrants, often worked through lunch and breaks and declined to drink water to reduce trips to the bathroom, he said. More than 80% said they regularly took pain medication to get through a shift.
"They think we're made of stone, that we're made of wood," said Maria Bruce, who works for the Mirage in Las Vegas. "But they don't know that we ache all over. Our whole bodies ache all over, but we still have to do the work."
Initially, resort groups such as MGM Mirage Inc., the biggest operator on the Strip, challenged claims that workload had increased at all. But after weeks of negotiations, the union won detailed contract language that reduces overall workloads for housekeepers.
Now, Taylor said, it's time to move on to kitchen help and porters, who also complain of growing workloads.
"I view this as a step in the process to give service workers the ability to have some control over the amount of work they have to do," he said. "This wasn't the end. It was a beachhead."