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For Third-Shift Workers, Coronavirus Is Making Life an Even Bigger Hell

They’re running on empty — with little chance to recharge and bring home the necessities they need

Andy, a pseudonymous 27-year-old factory worker in Ohio, begins with an apology. “Sorry if this sounds like a rant,” he says, “but it’s hard not to be blunt about the whole situation.” The major shift in day-to-day operations due to the coronavirus has made life for Andy — and many others like him who work the graveyard shift — especially miserable. Now he’s running out of steam.

Granted, working the third shift is often a lonely, thankless and sleep-deprived venture. But the livelihoods of those who do it become even more precarious when their already delicate schedules are thrown off. 

Take John, a 20-year-old security guard who works at a bank in Texas. “My schedule usually makes it impossible to shop or do other basic errands on weekdays, but now it’s difficult to accomplish even the simplest tasks,” he tells me. Earlier this week, for example, he needed to buy a new pair of work pants. But at the store, “there was a line going out the doors, so I didn’t go. Had I waited, I can only imagine how much sleep I would have lost, on top of the little sleep I get.”

Well guess I won’t be going to the bank any time soon! from Nightshift

The bigger issue, of course, is grocery stores, which John says “aren’t even open by the time I get off of work or wake up.” This is the same problem for Rebecca, a 29-year-old lab analyst in North Carolina. “I have to wake up very early to go meal shopping,” she says, “which is affecting my sleep the most.”

Rebecca works 7 p.m. to 7 a.m., but because most stores in her area restrict the first hours of operation to elderly shoppers, she’s unable to shop right after she clocks out. Without another option, she’s forced to sleep from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., then get up to buy groceries, meal prep, clean the house and do laundry. By the time she’s done, it’s back to the office

Not to mention, with roommates and family being quarantined, actually getting sleep during the day is as elusive as it’s ever been. “All of my neighbors are home and making more noise than usual,” Andy says. “Ear plugs and eye masks are essential!” 

I just want a grocery store to buy some milk. from Nightshift

These might seem like the small sacrifices everyone is making at the moment, but for those on the third shift, everything accumulates to what Andy calls a “shock to the system.” “We’re used to being sleep-deprived on some level or another — it’s just how it is,” he tells me. “But with the added stress, and the groceries and everyone else being on new hours, it really messes up the equilibrium most of us have come to know as normal.”

Tensions at work are naturally running high, too. “Corporate used the pretext of making truck bodies and such for [emergency medical services] to deem us essential,” Andy explains. “The problem is, that’s only a fraction of what we make, and the whole of everything we sell to third-party contractors of local and state governments, all of which are either shut down or running emergency skeleton crews.”

Has anyone else been labeled as an "essential worker" in the face of COVID-19 but doesn’t really agree with the title? from Nightshift

And so, Andy and the other floor personnel were given an option: “Either come in, risking ourselves and other coworkers to make items for buyers who aren’t buying, or stay home without pay and file for unemployment.” But as news about the coronavirus becomes increasingly dire, more and more of Andy’s coworkers are opting to keep themselves and their families safe over getting paid. “Every day further into this shut-in, more and more are calling in to say they’re self-isolating,” he tells me.

In turn, the resentment of his company’s white-collar workers, who get to work from home with full pay “despite having no one to sell to and no sales to account for,” has come to a breaking point — one that he’s not sure won’t ultimately topple his company in the process. “There’s always been some animosity [with the office staff], but since all this began, the feelings within the workforce have become more dark and a little more hostile toward management,” he says. 

“When people who normally take pride in their work and have a great work ethic become just as sour and unproductive as everyone else, you know it’s bad,” he concludes. “And unless things miraculously change, the tension will spread to the first- and second-shift workers, too, and production will come to a grinding halt.”