By Tom Conway
She only wanted a few hours at her dying mother’s bedside. But her bosses at Twin Rivers Paper in Madawaska, Maine forced her to work overtime on her day off. About an hour and a half into the mandatory shift, the woman’s mother died.
Workers are battling harder than ever to end this appalling mistreatment. They’re fighting back against mandatory overtime requirements that strain families to the breaking point and put lives at risk.
“It’s definitely caused a lot of heartache,” said David Hebert, financial officer and former president of United Steelworkers (USW) Local 291, one of three USW locals collectively representing about 360 workers at Twin Rivers.
USW members have long warned paper companies about the need to increase hiring and training to keep facilities operating safely. Yet some employers prefer to work people to the bone. Workers at Twin Rivers work a base shift of 12 hours — and each can be drafted for an additional 12-hour shift every month.
Even worse, a 12-hour shift can be extended with six hours of mandatory overtime without warning. Workers are often forced to pull multiple 18-hour days a week, especially when winter cold and flu season exacerbates the company’s intentional understaffing.
“People really hold their breath at the end of their shift,” explained Hebert. The coworker who lost her mother, for example, learned at the end of an 18-hour shift that she’d have to report the following day for overtime.
Other workers experience their own heartaches when unpredictable schedules leave them unable to make plans with their families or force them to miss graduations, anniversaries, birthday parties, or holiday gatherings.
“Family is the only reason we go into these places. I want to spend time with them, too,” said Justin Shaw, president of USW Local 9, which represents workers at Sappi’s Somerset Mill in Skowhegan.
“You’ve got many people who work seven days a week,” with some required to log 24 hours at a stretch, Shaw said. “If we had better staffing levels, we wouldn’t have people working outrageous hours.”
Besides the toll it takes on family life, excessive overtime compounds risk in an industry that exposes workers to hazardous chemicals, fast-moving machinery, super-hot liquids, and huge rolls of paper.
“It only takes a split second to lose a finger, an arm, or a life,” Shaw said, warning that extreme fatigue also puts workers at risk while commuting. “I’ve had many drives home that I can’t recall over half the ride. We have had many individuals in the ditch or wreck vehicles trying to keep up with the demands.”
A bill in Maine would limit mandatory overtime to no more than two hours per day and require employers to provide a week’s notice before mandating extra hours or changing a worker’s schedule.
The legislation places no caps on voluntary overtime, nor would it apply to true emergencies when a mill needs extra hands to avert “immediate danger to life or property.” But it would end the capricious usurping of workers’ lives that now occurs because the industry refuses to hire enough people.
Union members also continue to drive change at the bargaining table. Some workers are pushing to create “share pools” of workers whose role is to fill in where needed on a given shift.
“Share pools” virtually eliminated mandatory overtime at the Huhtamaki facility in Waterville, Maine, where workers once had to put in so many hours that some slept in their cars rather than commute home, said Lee Drouin, president of USW Local 449.
Drouin said other paper companies also need to realize that change is essential for workers but benefits them as well. “The mills have to understand, this is not going to go away,” he said. “To me, it makes a lot more sense to have happy workers and safe workers.”
Tom Conway is the international president of the United Steelworkers Union (USW)