For Santa Santiago, a mother of three who lives in Gaithersburg, Maryland, the sleep interruptions come not only from the strains of her housecleaning job, but also from the rhythms of her family. She wakes up before 6 each morning and leaves the house at 7 to drop her infant son off at a babysitter’s house. She returns home 12 hours later, and then it’s a race to get dinner on the table, the baby fed, and her own house cleaned.
“I don’t exercise, I don’t watch TV,” she said. “Sometimes I can’t even watch the news. I arrive at 7, the time flies, I wash the bottles, play with the child.”
She goes to bed at 10:30, but that’s not the end of her workday. The baby wakes up three times a night and wants to be breastfed. Santiago wakes up again at 3:50, when her partner gets ready to leave for his construction job. She goes to the kitchen to make his breakfast and lunch. Twenty minutes later, she goes back to sleep for a final hour or two before her own day begins.
She said she suffers from backaches and feels exhausted, upset, and irritable much of the time. She depends on pain medications from a nearby Latin market.
“Sometimes my body hurts,” she said. “I feel like it’s heavy.”
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Just because these workers’ bodies are hit hardest, though, doesn’t mean they’re the only ones affected. Working more than 40 hours per week increases the number of errors workers make. People who sleep less than seven hours per night say they have trouble concentrating, remembering, driving, and working. When performing "surgery" on a virtual patient, the well-rested surgeons had smoother hand motions and made fewer errors than those who were sleep-deprived.
A phone survey conducted in 2010 found that two in five U.S. drivers have "fallen asleep or nodded off" while driving. Most had been driving for less than an hour before they dozed off. The American Automobile Association estimates that one out of every six deadly car accidents results from drowsy driving. Kevin Roper, the Walmart truck driver who slammed into a limo bus carrying the comedian Tracy Morgan in June, had allegedly not slept for 24 hours before the crash.
Geiger-Brown said that while there's not much that shift workers can do, taking a nap instead of a coffee break might help, since sleep is often more restorative than caffeine.
McCalman doesn’t regret moving to America, but he says it’s not quite what he expected. He was surprised that it took him four months to find a job. He was surprised he only gets paid minimum wage. He was surprised that one minimum wage salary didn’t cover his rent and bills.
“Back in my country, you don't have to do two jobs,” he said. “Why do I have to pay a lady $1,000 for a little apartment? In my country, I’d be having a mansion with a swimming pool.”
For a while, McCalman was taking classes to try to get his GED. But the GED class was in the mornings, and he couldn’t afford to quit the wheelchair job. Now he’s slogging through the online coursework necessary for a commercial driver’s license—a Hail Mary attempt to become a truck driver, a job he hopes would come with a better schedule. The time he spends learning how to back up big rigs comes out of the roughly 80 total weekly hours he’s not at work or on a bus. And that means it comes out of his sleep.
He's optimistic, but his speech is punctuated with aspirations about a time when things will be different.
“I'm hoping that one day I can get some more sleep,” he said. “I'm hoping that I can get at least five hours or six hours.”
“I have some hope that someday I'm going to be removed from this situation.”