The Night Shift in Los Angeles: A Mixed Picture Emerges

Downtown Los Angeles | Flickr/Hector Sanchez/Creative Commons (CC BY 2.0)

While most people are sleeping in their cozy beds, there is a whole segment of society that is awake and keeping the city moving. Whether they’re nurses caring for patients at a hospital, or truck drivers delivering cargo, these workers are on the job at night.

In the big picture, how does night work affect the economy and society as a whole? The impacts are mixed, according to a review of the available research and interviews with experts.

On the positive side, certain night jobs are essential for public health and safety. Night workers help keep the economy running 24/7 by ensuring that products and services are available to meet consumer demand. In addition, this type of work can lead to other benefits, such as decreased freeway traffic during daytime hours.

However, there’s also a negative side to the night shift. Inadequate sleep for employees can lead to health problems, and it also can result in workplace errors and accidents. Sometimes, nighttime employees are abused by co-workers or managers, as documented in the PBS article Rape on the Night Shift.

Prevalence of Night Work

Harriet at Bub and Grandma's Bread | Still from "Nightshift"
Harriet at Bub and Grandma's Bread | Still from "Nightshift"

At the national level, there is some research available that quantifies the extent of these jobs.

According to 2004 data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), 3.2% of full-time workers in the nation typically worked the night shift, while 4.7% usually worked evenings.

In a 2014 national poll by Public Policy Polling, 1,000 workers described the type of schedule they usually have for their main job. This research showed that 3% generally work the night shift, and 5% typically work evening hours.

As for the precise extent and impact of night work in Los Angeles, the research is thin.

None of the public agencies or private research organizations contacted by KCET have conducted a comprehensive study, examining how night work in all occupations affects the entire Los Angeles economy.

The U.S. Census Bureau has local data on when employees leave home to go to their jobs, although the numbers don’t show the exact time of their work shift. According to estimates from the 2013-2017 American Community Survey, 4.6% of Los Angeles County workers leave home for work between 12 a.m. and 4:59 a.m.

One way to gain insight into employer demand is to examine job listings. According to a recent search on the employment website Glassdoor, there were nearly 131,000 total job openings for the Los Angeles area, and about 5,400 of those openings were night shift jobs.

Who Works at Night

Katheryn at the Ontario airport | Still from "Nightshift"
Katheryn, who works for UPS, at the Ontario airport | Still from "Nightshift"

In 2015, the BLS analyzed work schedules that fall outside the traditional 9-to-5 job. It divided this work into three categories (although there is frequently some overlap):

  • Evening (6 p.m. to 10 p.m.): often includes restaurant employees, hotel staff and entertainment workers.
  • Through-the-night (11 p.m. to 3 a.m.): such as police officers, firefighters, security guards, hospital workers, air-traffic controllers, manufacturing workers and truck drivers.
  • Early morning (4 a.m. to 8 a.m.): typically includes farmers and construction workers.

Negative Impacts

Carlos working at his family's fruit business | Still from "Nightshift"
Carlos working at his family's fruit business | Still from "Nightshift"

A key problem that can result from night jobs is a lack of sufficient sleep.

According to an article from the National Sleep Foundation, “Not only are night shift workers prone to serious driving accidents after their shifts end, but major industrial accidents, such as the Three Mile Island nuclear accident and the Exxon Valdez oil spill, have been caused, in part, by mistakes made by excessively sleepy workers on a night or extended shift.

“In addition, night shift workers are often employed in the most dangerous jobs, such as firefighting, emergency medical services, law enforcement and security, or in professions, such as nursing, medical practice and commercial driving, which require them to perform at their best so as not to endanger others.”

The foundation also states that long-term night work is linked to a higher risk of cancer, heart disease and other medical problems.

Not only do these shifts disrupt the body’s “circadian rhythm” that regulates sleep and other processes, it can also put workers out of sync with family and friends, said Los Angeles economist Christopher Thornberg, founder of Beacon Economics.

Andy Challenger, vice president of outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas, agrees, noting that there are social disruptions when employees “are not interacting with people in normal waking hours.”

Overall, the night shift “doesn’t square very well with our circadian rhythm, and with most people’s preferences,” observed Lonnie Golden, professor of economics and labor-employment relations at Penn State University, Abington College.

Roxana Tynan, executive director of the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy (LAANE), cited inadequate sleep and safety concerns as key problems facing night workers.

For instance, in the retail industry, employees assigned to “clopening” shifts may not get sufficient sleep, according to a 2018 report from LAANE and the UCLA Labor Center. “Clopening” requires a worker to close up late at night, and then return early the next morning to re-open the store. According to the report, 44 percent of employees surveyed have worked these types of shifts.

In addition, Tynan said that many women perform nighttime janitorial work in office buildings, and they face high rates of sexual assault.

Previously, Tynan recalled, she would sometimes work the night shift as a union organizer in Las Vegas. Although Tynan enjoyed talking to the casino workers, she absolutely hated the timing of the shift.

According to Golden, there’s no one piece of data that quantifies the overall economic effects of the night shift. Evaluating the impact isn’t simply a matter of noting whether an employee works at night. Other factors to consider include the length of the night shift, whether it’s regular or unpredictable, the amount of rest between shifts, and the intensity of work involved.

Protecting Night Workers

Veronica during her shift. | Still from "Nightshift"
Veronica during her shift as she cleans a quiet, empty building. | Still from "Nightshift"

In light of all this, what can employers do to help employees who work the night shift?

For one thing, employees should always receive extra pay for working these hours, Tynan said.

To protect vulnerable employees such as janitors working after dark, employers should conduct spot inspections to ensure that managers are behaving appropriately, and they should take any worker complaints seriously, she emphasized.

Golden’s advice: limit the night shift, to the extent possible. If night work is a good fit for an employee’s preferences and capabilities, then it might make sense. Otherwise, he said. companies are “better off waiting until the next morning.”

Positive Aspects

One reason for nighttime work is obvious: public health and safety. Hospital workers need to care for patients, police officers need to fight crime and other crucial work must be done.

Meanwhile, businesses with very capital-intensive operations — like refineries — also might operate around-the-clock, Thornberg said.

Sometimes, employees get extra pay for working nights, although that’s not always the case.

Also, there may be fewer meetings on the night shift, which appeals to some workers, Challenger said.

In the view of Jessica Duboff, vice president of public policy at the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce, the night shift helps the economy in many ways. It ensures a continuous flow of goods, provides employees flexibility in terms of when they work, reduces daytime traffic and enhances the status of Los Angeles as a global city.

Vincent working building Inglewood's new stadium | Still from "Nightshift"
Vincent working building Inglewood's new stadium | Still from "Nightshift"

At the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, officials have noted the benefits of night work.

In 2005, terminal operators created the company PierPass to alleviate daytime truck congestion. Its OffPeak program created incentives to move containers during night and weekend hours. The program has evolved over time, and now includes a mandatory cargo appointment system for truckers. Combined, the night gates and the appointment system have improved the flow of cargo in the port complex, said Weston LaBar, CEO of the Harbor Trucking Association.

Since 2005, the OffPeak program has diverted about 45 million trucks from daytime work to the night shift, according to PierPass President John Cushing.

Before the program was launched, about 90% of the trucks would call at port terminals during the day. Today, this has been reduced to about 60%, Cushing added.

In addition, the port’s longshore workers play a key role in the global economy.

“Working night is a necessary part of the job we do moving various goods and commodities through the supply chain,” said Ray Familathe, president of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) Local 13.

At the city’s busy international airport, meanwhile, there are jobs to do at all hours.

About 500 of the city employees at LAX work the overnight shift, according to Charles Pannunzio, spokesman for Los Angeles World Airports. Their roles are varied, including policing and security, operations and communications, bus operators, construction inspectors, plumbers, painters, electricians, mechanics and custodians.  

In an email, Pannunzio said that many employees work overnight because it’s the only time they can do their jobs.

For instance, this is the case when “we have to close a runway when rubber removal and field paint is required, or when our crews perform paving and asphalt repair in the Central Terminal Area or on the airfield,” he stated.

He noted that many airport workers are employees of third parties, such as airlines, and these organizations also have night workers who aren’t included in these numbers.

This is the challenge of night workers. Despite their ubiquity and their importance in a growing global economy, their effects have yet to be fully quantified. So, as the clock turns to five in the evening tonight and most of the 9-to-5 working population turn in for the night, imagine the millions who continue to work long after the last card is punched for the day. 

Top Image: Downtown Los Angeles | Flickr/Hector Sanchez/Creative Commons (CC BY 2.0) 

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