In our competitive world, life is all about work
With the decline of unions, the tech revolution, the rise of global commerce and the advent of smartphones and laptops, the very idea of a structured job week that ends on Friday afternoon seems quaint.
IT'S RUSH HOUR on a weekday morning, and as the Washington state ferry from Bainbridge Island pulls into Colman Dock in downtown Seattle, throngs of sleepy-eyed walk-on passengers rush through the terminal on their way to the tech companies, design firms, government agencies, banks and law offices that fill the city center.
At first glance, the scene looks typical of the neatly bracketed daily grind we all know so well: In by 9; out by 5.
But the truth is, many of the people dashing to the office won't leave work at 5. Or 6. Or even 7. Chances are they will use the commute back home to finish any tasks they didn't complete during the official workday. They'll carve out an hour or two before bed to do still more work.
An officer at a local startup tech firm coming off the ferry looked amused when asked whether he could do everything he needed to do for work in a standard eight-hour day or 40-hour workweek. A normal workweek for him is more like 60 hours, he said before scurrying away.
The 40-hour workweek feels like a vestige from a time when the labor movement proudly distributed bumper stickers proclaiming, "Unions: The folks who brought you the weekend." Construction workers and others still do clock in and clock out at 40 hours per week, plus paid overtime.
But with the decline of unions, the tech revolution, the rise of global commerce and the advent of smartphones and laptops that can connect workers to the office at any moment, even miles away from it, the very idea of a structured job week that ends at quittin' time on Friday afternoon seems quaint.
Nice work if you can get it.
In France, incoming President François Hollande controversially proposed scaling down that country's workweek to 35 hours.
But other countries in Europe are pushing for longer, not shorter hours as a way to increase global competitiveness.
In the United States, more than 85 percent of men and 66 percent of women work more than 40 hours a week, according to UNdata, the United Nations statistics division.
Americans are already known to be the most productive workers on the planet, yet there's pressure to work more.
It's a pressure imposed by executives and supervisors but also deeply ingrained in the expectations workers develop for themselves, especially given the sputtering economic recovery, which has many workers feeling thankful to be working at all, let alone more than the 40 hours reflected on their pay stubs.
Working 50 or 60 hours a week can feel like a curse and a blessing at the same time.
As Debbie Lee, a contract-monitoring specialist for the city of Seattle, put it during her light-rail ride into downtown one morning, she feels "pressure to get the job done and get the job done right."
For her, that means putting in an average of 50 hours a week, but 10 of those are spent catching up on emails and doing other work-related tasks at home in her "off" time. Technology has made workers like Lee accessible well beyond their cubicles and offices. But the demands of work can also push personal time out of reach.
"It's hard to find a life balance," Lee says. Hers is not so much a complaint as a description of the tough new reality for America's workforce.
AN AMAZON employee on a short break outside his office one afternoon put it plainly: "There's no such thing as a 'workweek' anymore." There's only work to be done. You figure it out from there.
Employees at his company have come to expect that they'll take a certain amount of work home with them in the evenings or on weekends to keep from falling behind at a company that sells goods worldwide 24/7.
But in this tug of war between work life and personal life, work usually wins.
"You don't bring your wife and kids to the office" to make up for lost time with them at home, the Amazon worker quipped.
In response, companies like Amazon have adopted policies designed to make the office feel a little more like home, such as allowing employees to bring their dogs to work.
On any day in South Lake Union, where the company's headquarters is, employees can be seen walking their dogs during work breaks. The company provides pet treats and even child gates to keep dogs corralled near their owners' desks.
There's a certain sweetness behind the idea. But the reality remains that these policies exist in part because many workers have less free time at home to do things like care for their pets.
What can be seen as a lifestyle sacrifice is also an opportunity for Michael Sas.
Every weekday morning, you can spot Sas strolling through Pioneer Square with his dog, Corby, scampering in front of him on a leash. If you guessed that they were out for a leisurely morning walk before Sas headed to work, you'd be part right. Only thing is that Corby isn't going back home or to a daytime kennel. He's going to work with Sas.
The 29-year-old architect, who heads the Seattle branch of the New Jersey-based firm Nick Tsapatsaris & Associates, works such long hours that he's decided it's better to have Corby with him all day.
The pooch can often be found curled up on a comfy easy chair in Sas' office or sprawled out on the floor.
"It makes my life easier and gives me peace of mind," Sas says. "It makes my day much happier — he kind of lightens the mood."
Plus, by taking Corby to work with him on his walk from home in Belltown to the office in Pioneer Square each day, Sas gets bonding time with his dog that he'd otherwise miss.
A typical workday for Sas goes like this: Arrive at the office around 8 in the morning, work until 6 or 6:30, head home, answer emails, schedule the next day's activities and work on drafting or production duties.
Since his firm's main office is in the Eastern Time Zone — meaning his colleagues in New Jersey are already at work just as he's waking up in Seattle, he has to factor that into his schedule.
If he needs to hold an 8:30 a.m. conference call in the morning with people back East, he needs to set it up from home on his laptop the night before — because that call will happen at 5:30 a.m. Pacific Time.
Sas may leave the office every night, but work is always close on his tail.
He's an avid skier, but even high on a mountain, he considers himself on-call for clients and his boss.
"I can't tell you how many times my phone has gone off on the slopes," he says. "I feel I should be available to anyone, at any time ... It starts when I wake up in the morning — the first thing I do is check my phone."
"I like to be constantly in touch, but then it kind of interferes with my personal life," he says.
Sas loves his job, so he isn't keen to complain.
"I want to get ahead, and I want to strive to be better in my career," he says. "If you don't put in that extra effort and put in the hours, what's going to keep your client from going somewhere else?"
The work-life balance was even tougher in New Jersey, where he regularly put in 70 hours a week, Monday through Saturday.
"Business is a six-day-a-week thing in New Jersey," Sas says. He and his wife, Beatrice Tang, saw even less of each other then.
Tang is an architect as well, and like him, she puts in about 60 hours a week, he says.
So the couple has to be diligent about setting aside time not just for Corby but for each other.
In the mornings, they usually walk to work together. Midway through their walk, she branches off to her office in the central business core; he continues on to Pioneer Square with Corby in tow.
And in the evenings, "We make sure to sit down for dinner every night," Sas says, adding that the dinner hour gives them a chance to talk and connect without distractions. "The TV doesn't go on until 9 o'clock or later."
PEOPLE WHO have to work from home after spending their days at an actual work site speak with resignation about the strain those extra hours places on their personal lives.
With two teens and a husband at home, small-business owner Michelle Codd must balance the demands of helping run two Poggi Bonsi Italian-import stores and her busy family in the South End.
The bottom line, Codd says: "Things that don't get done during the day because we have customers have to get done at home . . . It never stops."
That means the things that have to get done at home require planning — or chaos will ensue.
She and her husband, Tracy, a lawyer, have drawn up a logistics plan for themselves and the two of their four children still at home; it's a plan that would impress a military commander.
After working from about 8 a.m. to 6:30 p.m., she'll come home for dinner, which most of the time is prepared by Tracy, who gets home a bit sooner.
Then she'll work for another hour or so answering emails at her work station in the family's kitchen. Winding down often involves reading merchandise catalogs and trade publications that she keeps at her bedside. Because she's in retail, working weekends is a necessity as well.
On days when their 12- and 17-year-old boys need to be dropped off or picked up from sports practice or some other location, Mom and Dad divvy up the driving duties.
Codd jokes that her husband is pretty much always in his car roaming around their Normandy Park community in anticipation of having to pick up one of the boys somewhere. If he's out on an errand or busy cooking dinner, she'll handle the chauffeur duties on her way home from one of her stores.
"I couldn't do what I do without his help," Codd says. "My home life would definitely suffer and I wouldn't be as successful in my business without him."
FOR STILL other workers, pure financial necessity dictates adding overtime shifts and extra jobs to maintain a middle-class lifestyle and build a nest egg. The American dream isn't necessarily out of reach for them, but they have to work a lot more hours to achieve it than their parents did.
Carole Corcoran of Snohomish manages the bakery department full time at a Safeway supermarket, but also details and decorates pleasure boats as a side business, using money from that venture to help support her children, ages 19 and 12, and build a rainy-day fund.
Corcoran says she recently used money saved from the detailing job to help pay for $2,000 worth of repairs when her daughter's transmission went out.
"The extra money's nice, and I try to save all of it," Corcoran says one day while cleaning the interior of a 76-foot yacht owned by one of her biggest clients in Seattle's Ballard neighborhood. "And at this point, I won't let any customer down."
Building engineer Cory Jackson and his wife, Cathy, an administrator for a youth soccer league, also understand how much more tenuous their financial position would be without the additional hours Cory works at a Seattle yacht club and Cathy's job with the league. There's the monthly mortgage on their home to cover, plus all the expenses that go along with raising their two boys, who are 15 and 12.
On Father's Day this year, the 41-year-old Jackson relaxed with his family at home in Mountlake Terrace, roasting marshmallows over a fire in the backyard. It was a tableau of domestic normality, the way things ought to be every weekend.
The day before, though, he rushed to handle an emergency issue at the historic high-rise where he works in downtown Seattle, then pulled an overtime shift at his second job to make extra money for the summer vacation to Mexico that he and his family were planning, "so I'm not eating Top Ramen" on the trip.
"Not only has it been good for a backup, second source of income for me, but it's also a backup in case I run into problems," Jackson says, without an ounce of regret.
The family can get by with less money, the Jacksons say, but things like home improvements and special purchases like that trip would have to wait.
If he has to pull extra-long shifts and be away from his family some nights to make a trip with them possible later on, so be it.
"I do what I have to do," Jackson says. "I find hours where I can find them."
Jackson enjoys what he does and loves talking about his work, but he dreams of the day when he can feel settled financially, so instead of always plotting what he needs to do to maintain his life, "I can do what I want to do" to enjoy it.
Tyrone Beason is a Pacific NW staff writer. Ellen M. Banner is a Seattle Times staff photographer.