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Need for Speed Has Workers Seething

Labor: Production pace is emerging as a top health concern for low-wage employees.

June 19, 2002|NANCY CLEELAND | TIMES STAFF WRITER

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.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday June 20, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 17 inches; 617 words Type of Material: Correction
Worker speed--A story in Wednesday's Section A about workers facing new pressures to increase their speed on the job included a photograph of one such worker displaying three merit awards she had received from her former employer. The caption should have noted that the subject, Christina Roman, had changed her name from Graciela Vargas, which was listed on the award certificates.

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."

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