Virginia Beach firefighter Max Gonano was coming off a 24-hour shift on Father’s Day when he was told he’d have to work another 12 hours to cover for a staffing shortfall. By the time he got off work at 8 p.m., he’d missed the day with his 2-year-old and 4-year-old children and spent 36 hours straight at work.
Long shifts with little rest and last-minute schedule changes have become a routine occurrence for Gonano and his colleagues, who have worked six times the amount of mandatory overtime hours this year that they did before the pandemic.
From firehouses and police stations to hospitals and manufacturing plants, workers say they are being required to work increasing overtime hours to make up for post-pandemic worker shortages — leaving them sleep-deprived, scrambling to cover child care duties, and missing birthdays, holidays and vacations. While the extra hours can provide a financial boost, some workers say the trade-off is no longer worth it as they see no end in sight to a problem that has now lasted for several years.
“It’s getting to that fever pitch moment,” said Gonano, who is president of the Virginia Beach Professional Fire and EMS union. “It’s just rampant. People are tired of working all the overtime. It’s definitely causing morale issues.”
Staffing shortages have plagued the economy since the start of the pandemic, with many leaving the workforce to retire or take over child care needs, while others have switched professions, often to careers with better work-life balance or higher salaries. As a result, the number of open jobs has outstripped the number of workers willing or able to fill them. In August, employers reported 9.6 million job openings, an increase of 700,000 from July.
That has led to higher demands being placed on the workers who remained, particularly in health care, public safety and transportation professions where there are often minimum staffing requirements.
“They can’t get to kids’ birthday parties; they are missing flights for vacations. It puts a strain on their relationships with their significant others as well as impacting the mental well-being of their children," said Nick Mutter, a Boston EMT and secretary of the Boston Police Patrolmen’s Association union. “Why is Mommy or why is Daddy not home to take me out trick-or-treating or something they promised me? Try to explain mandatory overtime to an 8-year-old.”
This Halloween, eight Boston EMTs were mandated to work the overnight shift at the last minute, some of whom were parents who had planned to take their kids trick-or-treating that evening, said Mutter. So far this year, EMTs in the city have worked triple the number of mandatory overtime hours that they worked in 2016, said Mutter.
Employers say requiring overtime is a necessity — especially in health and safety positions with minimum staffing requirements — because they are unable to find enough workers to staff the shifts.
“I don’t like having to rely on that,” James Hooley, chief of Emergency Medical Services in Boston, said of mandatory overtime, which he said the department can only use to meet mandated minimum staffing levels. “It is something that we certainly watch, we certainly have been concerned about.”
The Virginia Beach Fire Department said in a statement that fire departments nationwide have been seeing a lack of interest in the profession for various reasons, including health risks, the long hours required, and a relatively low salary compared to other jobs.
But several labor unions say employers should be doing more to fill the persistent vacancies, like raising wages or improving working conditions to attract new workers, rather than placing the burden on their existing employees. In some cases, labor groups say employers are using overtime as a cost-saving measure.
“What we have seen is an aggressive normalization of understaffing,” said Michelle Mahon, assistant director of nursing practice for the union National Nurses United. “The hospital industry has been capitalizing on this narrative that there’s a nursing shortage, when in fact there is not. There are a million nurses who are licensed to practice in this country who are not working in nursing largely because of understaffing and poor working conditions.”
It’s not uncommon for Nicholas Whitehead, an operating room nurse at Ascension Via Christi Hospital in Wichita, Kansas, to have to work up to 16 hours straight, he said. After working his regular shift from 2:30 p.m. to 11 p.m., Whitehead said he is often called back to work a second shift that can last until 6:30 a.m. the following day to cover staffing shortages in the operating room. On some days, he gets just eight hours off work before heading in for his next scheduled shift.
“Having that minimal or sometimes no rest, you’re not able to perform to the level that would be safe or prudent for the patients,” said Whitehead. “Companies would like to portray nurses as heroes, which is a nice sentiment, but we’re also human beings who require rest. And because we get tired, that leads to mistakes, and in this field, those mistakes can lead to harm.”
Whitehead said his hospital has been using on-call duty, which was intended for emergencies or unplanned events, to make up for chronic staffing shortages in the operating room because the hospital hasn’t hired enough nurses. He said he is typically called back into work twice a month because not enough nurses were scheduled for the overnight shift to cover procedures that took longer than expected or got delayed during the day.
Ascension said in a statement that its operating room staff work an on-call rotation, which is considered part of the job responsibilities, and that on-call duty is intended to respond to after-hours “emergent and other unscheduled surgical cases.” Nursing staff across its hospital system work 10% to 15% of the time they are scheduled to be on call, the statement said.
While nurses were required to work extreme hours during the pandemic, Whitehead and others say their workload hasn’t gone down despite the drop-off in Covid patients. Instead, they say they are having to maintain a pandemic-era pace to make up for the thousands of nurses who have left the profession over the past several years.
New York recently strengthened a law that prohibits employers from making nurses work past their regularly scheduled hours outside of an emergency or an ongoing surgical procedure. Still, Jen Burke, a nurse at Vassar Brothers Medical Center in Poughkeepsie, New York, said it has become routine for her and her colleagues working in the cardiac catheterization lab to have their 12-hour shifts extended because of a lack of staff or beds in other parts of the hospital.
On one recent shift, she said nurses had to work from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. waiting for beds to open up so they could transfer their patients after their procedures were finished, leaving them just eight hours off work before they had to return for their next shift.
“There’s just no recognition by management that this is a problem,” Burke said. “You’re already working 12 hours and it’s just not OK to tell somebody that they actually have to stay for another two or three hours.”
The hospital said in a statement that it tries to minimize how often nurses have to extend their shifts and “is committed to adhering to all applicable labor laws and regulations, including those pertaining to overtime.”
“Vassar Brothers Medical Center’s utmost priority is always patient safety and the delivery of high-quality care, which sometimes entails nurses extending their shifts when waiting for available beds or necessary staffing to ensure safe patient transfers,” said John Nelson, a hospital spokesperson. “These instances are carefully managed to minimize their frequency and duration to prevent undue strain on our dedicated healthcare professionals.”
Workers say they feel like they are caught in a perpetual cycle where the required overtime is causing people to leave their jobs, exacerbating the staffing shortages and requiring even more overtime.
In Boston, the police department has been around 500 officers short for the last six years, and recruiting has gotten even more difficult following the 2020 protest over the killing of George Floyd and the criticism around policing that followed, said Larry Calderone, a Boston police officer and president of the Boston Patrolmen’s Association union.
While Boston recently added a new class of 130 officers to its ranks, it has lost 68 so far this year, Calderone said. He said the short staffing is leading to a workload and levels of stress on officers that are “indescribable.”
“Everybody worked nonstop through Covid, but it continued for 80 or 90 hours a week, every week,” said Calderone. “It continues for our police officers that are watching the homelessness situation, the mental health crisis that’s going on, the physical and the sexual assaults that are happening, and they’re forced to be there every day. The stress on these officers that are seeing this type of behavior, that are witnessing the emotional toll that is happening to society, I don’t know how to describe it.”
Workers across industries say they see no end in sight. The total number of freight railway workers has shrunk by 30% since 2016 as railway companies have moved toward a new staffing model that has left fewer workers to manage the same number of tracks and an increasing amount of cargo, said Clark Ballew, a spokesperson for the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees Division, which represents the workers who repair and inspect railway tracks.
The Association of American Railroads, which represents freight railway operators, said its members have been hiring in recent years to address staffing needs and recognize employees’ desire for better scheduling. The group said the number of overtime hours worked by BMWE union members increased to 4.7 hours per week in 2022, compared to 4 hours in 2016.
Cory Ludwig, who works as a machine operator repairing railway tracks in Iowa, said he’s been working Saturdays and some Sundays along with 10- to 12-hour shifts since September. Recently, he worked 13 days without a day off. With the mandatory Saturday work, he’s had to rely on friends and relatives to take care of his 5-year-old and 9-year-old kids. He said the overtime demands have increased as he’s seen the number of workers assigned to his crew go down.
“You fall asleep and then you wake up in the morning and you go right back to work. It can really break a person down, it gets really wearing on a person after a while,” Ludwig said. “With less people trying to do the same amount of work, working long hours, working multiple weeks in a row without one day off, you get irritated and you get burnt out.”
Recently, one of the union’s members had been working 22 hours straight when he fell asleep on the job, an error that could have put his colleagues’ lives at risk but also could have been avoided had the employee had a rest period, said Ballew. Another member was recently disciplined for refusing to work through his scheduled days off on short notice so he could care for a family member having health issues, Ballew said.
“The stress it puts on marriages and parenting and the things you leave behind for your spouse to deal with or the things you miss, that kind of stress builds up,” said Ballew. “In the rail industry, we have noticed recently a spate of suicides, and I can’t help but think there is a correlation there.”