If it’s a Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, or Saturday, Sam McCalman wakes up in his tiny one-bedroom apartment in Flatbush well before the nearest Starbucks opens for business. He catches the 5am bus to the John F. Kennedy Airport in Queens. From 7am to 3pm, he works there as a wheelchair attendant, gently rolling disabled and elderly travelers from gate to gate. Between clients, he is not permitted to sit down.
After a 30-minute break, he starts his second job wrangling luggage carts for Smart Carte. At 10pm, his shift is over, and he takes the B15 or B35 back to Brooklyn. He often falls asleep on the bus—so much so he frequently misses his stop and has to walk the last few blocks back home. By the time he crawls into bed, it’s nearly midnight. Four and a half hours later, it’s time to do it all over again.
McCalman immigrated from Guyana, a small country that borders Venezuela and Brazil, in 2010. His mother was already here, and he describes himself as the kind of guy who always wanted to come to America. It presented “a better opportunity to do something,” he said.
He got the wheelchair job a few months later, and picked up the second in 2013 when he realized he needed some extra cash. A series of exes bore him four children—two of whom still live in Guyana—and he sends them a total of $400 each month. He also owes $900 a month for the packed, non-airconditioned apartment, which is decked out with religious iconography and vinyl-covered white furniture.
We met on a Monday, his only day off. By Tuesday afternoon, he can hardly wait for Wednesday, when he only works one job. Between the two jobs, he brings home $500 a week.
The tight schedule lends McCalman a heightened awareness of how seemingly minor changes—a missed stop here, a traffic jam there—shave precious minutes off his sleep. “If the buses are messed up, I’m not getting that four hours,” he said. “If I had my own transportation, I might only need an hour to get to work.”
By 2pm each day, McCalman finds himself “literally falling asleep. I’m with a chair, and I’m waiting at the checkpoint, and because I’m waiting, my eyes start closing.”
McCalman’s life reveals a particularly sorry side of America’s sleep-deprived culture. Though we often praise white-collar “superwomen” who “never sleep” and juggle legendary careers with busy families, it’s actually people who have the least money who get the least sleep.
Though Americans across the economic spectrum are sleeping less these days, people in the lowest income quintile, and people who never finished high school, are far more likely to get less than seven hours of shut-eye per night. About half of people in households making less than $30,000 sleep six or fewer hours per night, while only a third of those making $75,000 or more do.
“We all have sleep problems,” McCalman says, speaking of his fellow airport workers. “Everyone who is doing two jobs has a sleep problem.”
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For most of the 1800s, a 12 to 16-hour workday was common. “Coal heavers” in Philadelphia protested in 1835 for the right to work just 10 hours per day. The labor movement, along with paternalistic industrialists like Henry Ford, were essential in normalizing the idea that people should work only eight hours. The chorus of one of the most popular labor songs from the 19th century went like this:
We want to feel the sunshine and we want to smell the flowers
We are sure that God has willed it and we mean to have eight hours;
Eight hours for work, eight hours for rest,
Eight hours for what we will.
But many low-income workers don’t even get an hour for “what they will,” and the eight hours of rest are increasingly hard to come by, too. Working minimum wage for eight hours per day would earn a worker $1,386 per month, less than half of the current median average rent in Brooklyn.
Night workers tend to be disproportionately affected, getting about two to four hours less sleep than normal. Our bodily rhythms are set by sunlight. Exposure to bright light when it’s time to sleep makes it harder for the body to produce melatonin, a sleep hormone. Over time, this sleep deprivation translates to an increased risk for heart disease, gastrointestinal problems, and reproductive issues.
In one study, researchers had mice imitate the schedules of shift workers: The rodents’ brain cells began dying off after just days, and the loss was permanent. A later study on 147 adult humans found that the sleep deprived among them had actively shrinking brains. This suggests that no amount of “catch up” sleep can ever reverse the effects of sleep loss on the body.
When people take on two jobs with only a few hours between shifts, they start to feel sluggish immediately, and that’s only the start. For the sleep-deprived, “it’s harder to move from activity to activity,” said Florence Comite, an endocrinologist in New York. “You’re irritable. A threshold that didn’t bother you before may bother you more. Your brain can’t compensate as much. Your reflexes are slower.”
Emotional regulation also suffers: The tired get cranky with less provocation.
Sleep-deprived workers know all of this. But “there are real facts of life when you need money for survival,” Comite said. “It’s risk-benefit. Do you feed your children by working a second job?”
As McCalman plays Tetris with his time, the only wiggle room he has is in his home life. But even then, it’s not much.
“I’m not having enough family time. Sometimes my wife complains,” he says. “Sometimes my wife has a wedding invitation, or a party. She always has to go by herself. Sometimes she gets so mad: ‘Why can’t you just ask for a day?’”
He also attends church regularly, and in his free time he tries to take online classes.
“You have to find this energy,” he said. “Sometimes it’s not easy. I have to do it.”
For some, a sleep shortfall can lead to narcolepsy-like symptoms. One study found that 53% of night-shift workers report falling asleep accidentally on the job.
While at JFK, I met Dadie Yao, a recent immigrant from the Ivory Coast who also works two jobs. Weekday mornings, he’s a security guard. At night, he’s a “cabin service member”—one of the people who dig the empty peanut bags out of the backs of airplane seats after the passengers get off. Between 4pm and 9pm, he gets what little sleep he can.
When I called Yao for an interview, he said he’d call me right back in 10 minutes. I waited and waited. Two hours later, my phone rang.
It was Yao. He had sat down on his couch and accidentally fallen asleep.
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The demands on low-income parents can cut into sleep in insidious ways, even if they don’t work nights. Jeanne Geiger-Brown, a professor of nursing at the University of Maryland who treats low-income patients at an insomnia clinic, says there are two general reasons the poor don’t sleep enough: They either don’t spend enough time in bed, or the quality of their sleep is not very good.
“Waiting on public transportation takes additional time away from sleep,” she said. “A lot of them will have to get up for the bus stop at 5:30 even if their shift doesn’t start till 7, and an ordinary person would be getting in their car at 6:30.”
Crowded, hot, and noisy apartments can make it harder to fall and stay asleep. Poor women in particular are more likely to be obese, a condition that can lead to sleep apnea.
“If your body is waking you up from eight to 100 times an hour with these little tiny awakenings, you wake up feeling like hell,” Geiger-Brown said.
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 US 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.”