Overwork Impacts on Low-Wage Workers: Insights from the Food Manufacturing Sector in Oregon and Washington


Lola Loustaunau, University of Wisconsin Madison School for Workers; Lina Stepick, Paraprofessional Healthcare Institute (PHI); and Elizabeth Kneebone, Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco

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October 10, 2023

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“Each week is different. Sometimes they [the employer] ask me to stay one hour after my shift, sometimes two, sometimes more. It really depends on what they need, but they never consider the worker and what we might need. If they need to finish a job, they don’t even ask… ‘Is it okay with you to stay longer? Are you able to stay longer?’ They just say you have to do it. And the problem is that our shifts are usually already long, because 10 hours is a long time to be standing on the line, but it never is just 10 hours. You end up working 12 or 13 hours, and your feet hurt, your back hurts, and you don’t have a choice…You come back home, and you are so exhausted you can barely take care of your family.”

This is the answer Claribel, a migrant worker who has been employed in the fruit packing industry for over 20 years, gave when asked about her work hours. Her response illustrates some key dimensions of overwork—an underexamined component of unstable scheduling practices that significantly impacts low-wage workers and can affect both short-term and longer-term labor force participation across a range of industries and occupations.

Unstable scheduling refers to such employer practices as last-minute schedule changes, lack of advance notice, requiring employees to be on-call, split shifts, “clopening,”i and variable hours and shift times. Evidence has shown that such practices can lead to underwork, or involuntary part-time hours, particularly for service-sector workers.ii But another, less-explored dimension of unstable scheduling practices—and the focus of this analysis—is overwork. Overwork stems from practices that can limit the ability of workers to get adequate rest and can heighten the bodily and emotional hazards that workers experience. We identify the following forms of unstable scheduling practices that constitute overwork:

  • Long work days of over eight hours/day
  • Long work weeks of over 40 hours/week and/or over five days/week
  • Long stretches of over seven days without days off
  • Lack of sufficient breaks during shifts

These multiple dimensions of unstable scheduling are sometimes layered together. For instance, workers can experience both optional and mandatory overtime, which can extend both their work day and/or their work week. When workers are assigned mandatory overtime, they face risk of penalty if they refuse to work these extended hours, including potential loss of employment. In addition, workers may experience combinations of overwork, underwork, or other unstable scheduling practices within one job, or as they move between multiple jobs to cobble together full-time, year-round employment, especially if working in an industry with high turnover and widespread seasonality. These combinations compound the strain that workers experience.iii

Unstable scheduling practices—including the implications of overwork for worker health and safety—are associated with considerable costs to employers in lost productivity and increased turnover. For employees, working long hours is associated with adverse health impacts and increased work-family conflict, particularly when long working hours are combined with additional employer practices of unstable scheduling, such as a lack of advance notice and limited or no worker input on scheduling.iv Working more than eight hours a day or 40 hours a week is associated with a greater risk of mortality and the development of a wide range of chronic illnesses and maladaptive coping mechanisms.v Mandatory overtime is associated with increased stress, fatigue, depression, anxiety, chronic illness and injury, burnout, and turnover.vi The lack of advance notice for mandatory overtime work is an additional layer of unstable scheduling that can compound the hazards of working long hours.vii Because the hazards of overwork contribute to worker burnout, injury, premature disability, and turnover, examining overwork is crucial to understanding how unstable scheduling can impact labor force participation and full employment.

This brief examines these different forms of overwork, focusing on the impacts of overwork on low-wage workers. After a brief overview of methods, we draw on a quantitative analysis of publicly available data to provide historical context for overwork in the United States and discuss its prevalence across industries and occupations. We then spotlight the food manufacturing industry, which has particularly high rates of overwork, as well as one of the highest rates of workplace injuries of any manufacturing subsector.viii We focus on the industry and workforce in Oregon and Washington—using a robust, original, qualitative dataset that draws on interviews with 75 workers, managers, and other stakeholders—to elucidate the different forms of overwork and the impacts of these employer practices on low-wage workers. Finally, we discuss considerations for policy and practice efforts aimed at addressing the negative impacts of overwork across industries and occupations and their implications for full employment.

The views expressed in this report are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco or the Federal Reserve System.


Thank you to all the workers who generously spent their time sharing their experiences with us and to Crystal Theresa Ejanda for editorial and production guidance.

End Notes

i. “Clopening” refers to the practice of scheduling workers to work closing hours, followed by opening hours, or the late shift, followed by an early morning shift, often with insufficient rest time in between.

ii. Stepick, Lina. 2022. “Shifting Hours: Unstable Work Scheduling Practices.” Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco Community Development Research Brief-07. doi: 10.24148/cdrb2022-07.

iii. It should also be noted that in this brief we focus on temporal forms of overwork, but workers may also experience increased intensity of workloads, such as through speeding up manufacturing lines, increasing caseloads, or requiring workers to take on additional tasks and responsibilities without sufficient training or support. Increasing the intensity of workloads is often compounded by the rise in understaffing as an employment practice and by high turnover rates, which reinforce one another in a vicious cycle. For more, see: Loustaunau, Lola, et al. 2021. “No Choice but to Be Essential: Expanding Dimensions of Precarity During COVID-19.Sociological Perspectives 64(5): 857–75.

iv. Golden, Lonnie, and Jaesung Kim. 2017. “Irregular Work Shifts, Work Schedule Flexibility, and Associations with Work-Family Conflict and Work Stress in the U.S.” In De Groof, Sarah, Frank Hendrickx, and Roger Blanpain, eds. Work-Life Balance in the Modern Workplace: Interdisciplinary Perspectives from Work-Family Research, Law, and Policy. Kluwer Law International.

v. Bannai, Akira, and Akiko Tamakoshi. 2014. The Association Between Long Working Hours and Health: A Systematic Review of Epidemiological Evidence. Scandinavian Journal of Work, Environment & Health 40(1): 5‒18.

vi. Yu, Jiaoyang, and Stavroula Leka. 2022. “The Effect of Worktime Control on Overtime Employees’ Mental Health and Work-Family Conflict: The Mediating Role of Voluntary Overtime.International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health 19(7): 3767‒83; Beckers, Debby G. J., et al. 2008. Voluntary or Involuntary? Control Over Overtime and Rewards for Overtime in Relation to Fatigue and Work Satisfaction.Work & Stress 22(1): 33‒50; Brockwood, Krista, et al. 2021. Mandated, but Not Compensated: Exploring the Multifaceted Impacts of Overtime on Farm Workers’ Health, Safety, and Well-Being. Oregon Health Sciences University and Pineros Y Campesinos Unidos del Noroeste White Paper.

vii. Although several jurisdictions have passed or considered predictive scheduling ordinances, some states have specifically addressed lack of advance notice for mandatory overtime. For example, a 2022 Oregon law requires that employers give five days’ notice for mandatory overtime and that they not penalize workers for refusing last-minute overtime hours.

viii. Bureau of Labor Statistics. 2020. “Injuries, Illnesses, and Fatalities.” Employer-Reported Workplace Illnesses and Injuries.

Article Citation

Loustaunau, Lola, Lina Stepick, and Elizabeth Kneebone. 2023. “Overwork Impacts on Low-Wage Workers: Insights from the Food Manufacturing Sector in Oregon and Washington.” Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco Community Development Research Brief 2023-03. doi: 10.24148/cdrb2023-03.