Houston's Night Shift: How Overnight Workers Survive in a City Not on Their Schedule
Natalie Moloney worries about two things at her job. The first is keeping the planes over Texas from crashing into one another. The second is hoping a car isn’t crashing into her son, who has schizoaffective disorder, as he walks to work in the dark. So far at least three neighbors have emailed her saying that they’ve almost hit him.
Moloney, 48, has been an air traffic controller for the past quarter century. From a windowless room on Greens Road south of George Bush Intercontinental Airport, she observes the sky through radar. The scope of her observation reaches up to 16,000 feet in the sky and stretches from the Louisiana border to 30 miles east of Austin. Her job is to keep Texas airspace safe until she can hand landing duties off to the towers at airports like Hobby and Ellington Field.
She also works a bizarre schedule that often includes the middle of the night. A typical week will be 3 p.m. to 11 p.m. or 4 p.m. to midnight the first night, then usually 1:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. the second night and then maybe a day shift from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. or another 1:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m.
“We are allowed to take naps at work if we absolutely have to, but it’s on your break and your break is only 15 to 20 minutes long,” says Moloney. “So you’ll get ten minutes of sleep, a little power nap, and you’re back.”
Meanwhile, back in their home in Magnolia, her son, Yarek, gets to walk down a busy two-lane road on the way to cross a five-lane street because his mom has the only car in the family. No public transportation will take Moloney to and from work, and the only other option is to have her boyfriend make the 45-minute drive with her and back later to pick her up.
It wasn’t like this when she started working. Her first position was in Long Island, New York, and there she had access to a fast, efficient public train system. One station was two miles from her house and the other one mile from her work, all easily within walking distance. She prefers Houston to New York in most ways, but when it comes to 24-hour access to places, Houston trails other big cities.
“There are park and rides and things like that, but they go to the city,” says Moloney. “They don’t go to the airport.”
It’s odd, because Houston is very much a 24-hour city. Hospitals run around the clock employing thousands who work between dusk and dawn in everything from medical staffing to technical support. The Houston Ship Channel, many sites that serve the oil industry, the airports, grocery stores, bakeries and more all have employees who keep the city running while we sleep or prepare Houston for the next work day.
And while there are some real benefits to overnight hours — no rush hour, fewer managers and the ability to go to children’s daytime school events — services that most of us consider a normal part of life such as public transportation, good restaurants and quality child care are not readily available to night shift workers in the fourth-largest city in America.
In fact, there’s very little in terms of accommodations for those essential workers in Houston, Texas.
Susie Stephenson works until midnight, but the specialists her deaf daughters needs to see weekly don't.
Photos by Max Burkhalter
Susie Stephenson works late, from 4 p.m. to midnight Friday through Monday at a call center. She originally took on night work trying to balance going to school for a music education degree and earning enough money to afford an apartment since there were no vacancies in the dorms. Often she wishes that she could take public transportation instead of driving late at night sleep deprived, but that’s not feasible.
A quick look through the METRO trip planner shows that Stephenson could take a bus from the Spring Park & Ride on Carlsway Road and get to her office in a fairly timely manner. However, that same system can’t get her home again when she clocks off at midnight. The next bus she needs won’t reach her until after 5 a.m.
“There’s no guarantee someone could come get me,” says Stephenson. “When I had my old car and it would have trouble, I just ended up calling in. The buses don’t work for me.”
Even for Houstonians firmly inside the 610 Loop and in an area serviced by the METRORail, things go unexpectedly awry at night. Nicholas L. Hall (who occasionally writes about food for the Houston Press) works for a private firm that helps oversee electrical grids. As he likes to put it, his job is making sure the lights work when you get up to pee at 3 a.m.
A little less than half of Hall’s work hours are spent on shifts from 5 p.m. to 5 a.m., and he’s lucky enough that his commute from downtown to Montrose is only eight minutes. In fact, it’s within walking distance, which turned out to be a blessing and a curse one night. He’d been taking the light rail to work at the time, and because things were slow, his boss let him off two hours early. Without really thinking about it, Hall headed to the station to catch his train, realizing only after he got there that it would be hours before the next one arrived. His options were to either go back to work or walk home. He decided to walk.
“It was a horrible plan and I regretted it immediately,” says Hall. “It’s about four miles. You see some really interesting elements of Houston nightlife walking down Main Street past the Greyhound station. Walking down West Alabama between Spur 527 and Montrose at 4 a.m. can be an unnerving experience. At least it was then. There are probably not quite so many crack houses now.”
So Hall drives most of the time now, as do Stephenson and Moloney. This certainly isn’t making Houston roads any safer. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that 100,000 traffic accidents a year are the result of fatigue, killing more than 1,500 people annually. According to the National Sleep Foundation, shift workers are more likely to drive drowsy than day workers (36 percent versus 25 percent). Working the night shift almost guarantees sleep deprivation because of how the human body deals with sleep.
Max Hirshkowitz, Ph.D. spent his entire professional life in Houston studying the nature of sleep. For 37 years he taught at Baylor College of Medicine, and he served as director of the Sleep Disorders and Research Center at the Michael E. DeBakey Veterans Affairs Medical Center until he retired to California last year.
“Sleep is a vital physiological process needed to maintain health,” Hirshkowitz says. “Adequate amount of sleep is important for the regulation of sugar in the body, for general health of the gastrointestinal tract, and the immune system. There are certain things that happen only when you sleep and if you don’t sleep, those things don’t happen.”
According to Hirshkowitz, human sleep patterns are a two-part process. The first is the sleep drive, and it’s relatively simple. The longer a person stays awake, the more tired he gets. Chemicals that the body needs to feel awake get used up and need to be replenished by sleep. Anyone who has fallen hard into bed after a long day can understand the sleep drive.
However, the awake drive is a little different. It is activated by light, and synced to the day-night cycle in what’s called the circadian rhythm (from the Latin words meaning “circuit” and “day”). Normally these two systems work in tandem. The daylight wakes a person up and he is ready to go until he starts to wear down at night, and then the cycle repeats. It’s different for night workers, though.
“You’re not sleepier at 7 a.m. than you are at 7 p.m., even if you’ve been awake the same amount of time, because your awake drive is pumping out a signal to be awake,” says Hirshkowitz. “It will keep increasing that signal until 9 or 10 p.m. A night shift worker getting up after a full day of sleep doesn’t have that awake drive pushing them. By 6 a.m. you’re dying for some sleep because you’re out of gas, but the awake system has just come on. It’s like an alarm clock. You can sleep through an alarm clock if you’re tired enough, but it just keeps going off trying to wake you up. You’re sleeping against the system. It becomes a vicious cycle.”
Suveda Perikala, 21, a novice medical-surgery nurse who was surprised to find herself on the night shift, says that at first the transition was hard. “I was not mentally prepared to start on night. I couldn’t fall asleep. I would just kind of lay in bed until it was time to go to work. On the first night, I was falling asleep at 3 a.m. at the computer. It was horrible the first night. I felt like a mess.
“I work on a med-surg floor, so luckily you can get everything mostly out of the way before the patients fall asleep and then you just have to chart. After a couple of weeks, it got better. Nights are quieter. There’s no management, no doctors. There’s not a lot of things being done because patients are asleep. But that’s a med-surg floor. A lot of patients are stable. It’s different in ICU or mother-baby. There it doesn’t matter if it’s night or day.”
Although she’s made her peace with the night shift for now, Perikala worries about the long-term effects of overnight work.
“These days I come home and sleep for only four or five hours. I feel like I’ve adjusted, but I don’t know how I’m going to be in the long run. I don’t know if I’m going to develop any issues because I know a lot of people who work the night shift develop stuff like irritable bowel syndrome.”
“When you’re sleep-deprived, everything is terrible,” says Hirshkowitz. “You can’t get things done and you can’t stay focused. Your whole quality of life is down. It decreases all your positives and increases all your negatives. Getting a good night of sleep is important to the pursuit of happiness.”
There are things these nighttime workers have found helpful, beyond dosing themselves with melatonin to aid in sleep. Avoiding light so as not to trigger the awake response is one such strategy.
“Blackout curtains are a must,” says Hall. “Light is my enemy. My wife doesn’t drive, so during the school year I’ll get home just after 5 a.m., take a short nap, get the kids up at 7 a.m. and off to school, get back around 8:30 a.m. and by then I’ve been exposed to far more light than I would like. I find it difficult to get to sleep because you find yourself soaking up all that vitamin D. Your body thinks it’s time to be awake.”
Other tips: Maintain a regular schedule and don’t switch back and forth between nights and days. After being up late at the lab most nights, Hirshkowitz would do his grocery shopping, and would strike up conversations with lonely and bored cashiers and security guards. From those talks he gathered that the ones who did the best were those who managed to stay in sync.
“Of course, that’s easy to say, but most shift workers end up halfway between a night and a day schedule to attend family events and things,” Hirshkowitz says. “It’s like flying to Europe every week where you’re fighting jet lag all the time. It’s called social jet lag.”
Late at night, Natalie Moloney, shown with son Yarek, monitors Texas air space as an air traffic controller and misses the days when she could take the New York subway system to work.
It’s tough enough for anyone to handle an overnight schedule. Add children to the mix, and the degree of difficulty can accelerate significantly.
“The union (National Air Traffic Controllers Association) did a sleep study a few years ago and they found out that the hours before 5:30 a.m. were our most restful, so if I had an evening shift and then a day shift the next day, I would have to have nine hours between them,” says Moloney. “But they found out that no one was actually using that extra hour to sleep because we were all using that time to help kids with their homework or run errands. So they said, ‘Why bother?’”
For Stephenson, sleeping on her days off is simply not an option. Her 20-month-old daughter Janelle was born with congenital deafness, and has 95 percent hearing loss in both ears. That means her life is an endless series of appointments with various medical specialists. The upside is that she has three weekdays off each week to schedule those appointments, but the downside is they all occur when she would normally be sleeping. You can get emergency care all over Houston at any hour, but specialists are strictly nine-to-five most of the time.
“We have an appointment on Tuesdays, every other Wednesday is a physical therapy, Thursdays is speech therapy, another doctor once a month and another doctor every six months,” says Stephenson. “I usually do them myself or with my boyfriend, Chad, but I go to every appointment.”
Child care in Houston is also an issue. A search through Yelp yielded only four locations for overnight child care in this city, though overnight care can sometimes be found in home-based facilities by searching through the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services website. Robindell Private School operates two locations in Houston and, according to a representative who spoke with us by phone, offers the same quality care at night as it does during the day at the same rate. The other two child-care centers available are operated by Stay & Play Daycare, whose representative refused to answer any questions regarding prices or quality of service at night and hung up on us in mid-query.
For a lot of night shift workers, it falls to family to help guide kids through the daytime world their parents only semi-inhabit. Stephenson lives with her sister, mother and grandmother, and it’s largely because of them that she can work the hours she does.
Paula Gonzales relies on family to help care for her nine-year-old son, Julian. Both Paula and her husband, Edward, work nights, she in the financial department of a hospital and he in a warehouse. For Gonzales, the night shift has always been normal. Before her current job, she was the head baker at night in a bakery, and before that an ambulance dispatcher. She grew up watching her dad leave for work at night as an EMT.
“Dad would wake up and cook dinner for Mom so it would be ready for her when she got home from work before he left,” says Gonzales. “I remember once when I was around five crying because he was going off to work.”
Her son has adjusted well to his nocturnal parents. Thursdays and Saturdays are the family’s weekend, and he knows those are the days they’ll be going out to the movies or other entertainment. Especially during the summer, he makes an effort to live closer to his parents’ schedule. During the school year, because they tend to be off on odd days, they’re better able to attend things like school Christmas plays. The only thing they consistently miss is bedtime.
Her mom takes care of Julian. Gonzales is there to pick Julian up from school and help him begin his homework, but she rarely gets to help him finish it before she has to leave for her shift. Usually she ends up checking it in the car on the way to school. His classes let out about six hours later, and she’s considering trying to enroll him in some afterschool programs to see if she can get more sleep before picking him up.
That works wonders for Tig Bennett, who works nights doing tech support on servers and cloud maintenance. When he started dating his girlfriend, Amanda, her son Sam also became a part of his life. After they moved in together, he had to plan how to operate not just for himself but as part of a family.
“Her mom was taking care of Sam while she was at work, and now we had to figure out something else,” says Bennett. “There’s this program called Club Rewind (in Cy-Fair Independent School District). It’s expensive, pretty much $300 a month, but I don’t get home early enough to take him to school and if I pick him up when school gets out, I only get a few hours of sleep. That affects my work performance, which when you’re lifting heavy servers matters. They help him with his homework, and he gets some exercise in. He’s now fascinated by dodgeball. That’s his new favorite thing.”
Night shift workers typically don’t work five days a week. Usually their schedules are compressed into longer periods, often three 12-hour shifts or variations on that. The difference between night shift and day shift, though, is that a day off is often a meaningless concept for night-shift workers because they’re either spending the day resting in preparation or sleeping off their exhaustion. Twenty-four-hour jobs also tend to be five-day-a-week jobs, and can include work on holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas to boot. Some jobs offer wage bonuses for working those holidays, but only for the hours worked on the calendar day. So someone who comes in at 7 p.m. on Christmas might get time-and-a-half, but only until midnight, and then would revert to his usual wage for the next seven hours despite working on Christmas according to any conventional definition of the phrase.
When Bennett moved in with his girlfriend, he had to block out five whole days to get it done, and two of those were spent simply resting up so he would have the energy to help with the move. The rest of his time was devoted to arranging trucks, switching utilities, changing addresses, filling out forms, etc. — all things that have to be done in the daytime.
“I try to explain to people that when you work overnight, you have to plan things in a way most people don’t,” says Bennett. “If we want to have a weekend away, I have to take off an extra day so I’ll be well-rested. Otherwise, what’s the point of a vacation if you’re tired? When you do work overnights and you have two days off, you essentially have just one day off because you’re sleeping that day. People don’t realize that.”
Hall is a little luckier. He works in six-week spurts and then gets an entire week off before the next round comes up. It’s called longchange, and it allows him to spend time with his wife and three kids in ways that a lot of working parents don’t get to.
“We’re always counting down to longchange,” says Hall. “It’s a feast-or-famine sort of arrangement, but it does afford me more free time with my family. I’m typically one of the only dads that shows up to school events because I’ll have the random Wednesday off. In the summer we take little mini vacations. The kids know that we have to make the most of the times I’m off.”
If something goes wrong, though, and longchange is weeks away, it can be difficult. Once their washing machine went out just as Hall was about to go on night shift. That left the family with a growing pile of dirty clothes and no one to go pick up a new washing machine. Hall instead dug around on the Internet for a couple of 24-hour washaterias to do the laundry during work until his free week rolled back around and he could take care of getting a replacement.
Still, there are benefits to working at night. Houston’s night-shift workers talked about the lack of traffic, the cooler temperatures and the generally more laid-back atmosphere of the night shift. Some people find they function better at night.
“I did do days for about six months a year ago and I hated it,” says Gonzales. “There was traffic; it was noisy.”
Before becoming a family man Bennett was a performer in bands like Bamboo Crisis and Houston’s legendary Bozo Porno Circus. He got into working the night shift after the GMC dealership he worked at closed. As far as Bennett was concerned, since he was partying all night, he might as well work at night.
“Nighttime is kind of your morning, so I’d go to a club and I wouldn’t start drinking right away because it was basically like waking up and having a beer,” says Bennett. “It would throw people off, me at 8 a.m. and me having a little bit of whiskey. People look at you like, ‘You’re drinking that early in the morning?’ Nope, it’s my nightcap.”
Numbers Nightclub on Westheimer was his preferred way to spend the evening, or morning in his case. He also got into attending midnight movies at the Landmark River Oaks Theatre and hitting a diner before heading home. On the other hand, there are still drawbacks. Most people wouldn’t have to take a vacation day off from work to do a concert at night, but Bennett did because nights were his workdays. Relationships with friends on day schedules also suffered.
“If someone wants to hang out during the day like at a festival, I’m compromising my sleep schedule to do something for them,” says Bennett. “People on daylight hours don’t do that, and so they don’t understand how big a deal it is. I’d get off at 7 a.m., go home and wind down, go to sleep, and make myself wake up at noon to participate in something. What ends up happening is by nighttime, I’m exhausted and I pass out.”
Another person who uses the night to its full potential is Chuck Norfolk, 51. His regular gig is doing IT work for Harris County hospitals, but his passion is filmmaking. He’s a prolific member of the local horror film community, writing, producing and acting in movies like The Haunted Trailer, Jacob and Conjoined. Being up all night comes in handy when he needs to shoot spooky scenes in the dark or needs quiet time to come up with a script for those scenes.
“It’s nice with shift work,” says Norfolk. “You can block out five whole days to make a movie and only use two vacation days.”
It takes a toll on him, too, though. Shooting a film at night is one thing, but postproduction is another. Most of the professionals Norfolk uses to complete his movies keep regular business hours, which means he has to venture out during the day to work with them. There are also the public events and appearances that are important to hustling an independent film, and sometimes he just can’t make it happen.
“I’ve done it so long that I’m used to it and I feel my health hasn’t suffered much, but yesterday I was supposed to show up to an event with Joe Grisaffi at the Houston Arcade Festival for one of our movies, and I just didn’t wake up,” says Norfolk. “I slept until 3:30 p.m. and had to call him to say I was sorry. I was just out of it.”
Nighttime and early morning can also be a good time to catch a quiet bite to eat in some parts of Houston. House of Pies is a popular destination at all hours, as is Chacho’s. Katz’s, of course, never closes, and BB’s is open 24 hours. So are Spanish Flowers and Chapultepec.
Finding a place to have a drink after a night shift is a bit harder, but it can be accomplished. The D&W Lounge on Milby Street opens and starts serving alcohol at 7 a.m. specifically to cater to shift workers at a nearby coffee roasting plant. The bar at Katz’s also opens as early as legally possible, which Hall sometimes finds to be very helpful.
“I remember this one time after I had gotten off what was just a hellacious shift and felt like I just had to have a drink,” says Hall. “At shift turnover, a whole bunch of catastrophic things had happened that held me over. I was starting to leave work around 6:30 a.m. and I got waylaid by the Houston Marathon. The route cut right through my commute home. I couldn’t find a way back to my house, and finally just ended up at Katz’s. So I sit there and ordered breakfast, and I look over and see the bar. It was just a hair until seven and I asked the bartender, ‘Will you treat me like a deviant or a sociopath if I ask you for a double shot of whiskey in approximately six minutes?’ He said no, they got a lot of early drinkers, and I let him know I wasn’t drinking early. This was a nightcap, not me having whiskey for breakfast.”
There are places aplenty to eat but, according to Hall, there aren’t a lot of really good ones in his expert opinion. It’s nearly impossible to get a good prime rib on the night shift, or a nice seafood dinner. Those restaurants just don’t stay open late enough or open early enough.
“I mean, if you want to go out and have a meal on the night shift, you’re either sitting in the bar with a bunch of people partying at Chacho’s or something,” says Norfolk. “There’s no place you can go out and get a really nice steak. The normal business world, they can all go to lunch wherever they want. There’s 10 million places you can go. We have Taco Bell and Whataburger.”
Perikala wishes more places would deliver. Her hospital’s cafeteria shuts down at night. One day she forgot her lunch, and if she hadn’t noticed before Pizza Hut stopped delivering at 11 p.m., she would have been out of luck. Almost all the people we spoke to mentioned living on fast food far more than was health9y because they were too tired to cook, didn’t want to wake up family members by preparing meals while they were asleep or there were too few 24-hour grocery stores. Stephenson and Perikala both said they had gained weight thanks to poor diet and loading up on food before a long shift.
“I think people aren’t even aware that my job exists, and I think that’s something that plagues a lot of workers at these hours,” says Hall. “These sorts of jobs are really very basic components of life in modern America that no one really considers. Think about porters that clean up after restaurants close or delivery people or the guys that pump grease traps. I see a lot of grease trap trucks operating at 5 a.m. No one wants to smell that when they’re driving into work; nobody wants to smell in the middle of the day. It’s a nuisance, but it’s something that has to happen. Unless you’ve dealt with people in that industry, you’re probably not even aware that it’s happening.”
These people survive through the support of family members who keep normal, human hours and through a small network of late-night services available to them. Hall is able to get his shopping done at the so-called Disco Kroger in Montrose, which is always open, but aside from Walmart, all-night shopping destinations for basic staples are few and far between. Buying something like scrubs is hard for Perikala since most medical uniform stores open after her bedtime, meaning she’ll have to get up early before work if she needs a new outfit for work and wants to try it on instead of ordering online. A lack of 24-hour pharmacies near her home has Moloney always worried about refilling her son’s medications when they run out.
Even something simple most people take for granted, like taking a car to get it inspected or have the oil changed on a lunch break, becomes a major chore that needs careful planning, according to Norfolk. When Gonzales caught bronchitis last winter, she was lucky enough that she was already in a hospital where a doctor was happy to look her over, but otherwise it would have required taking two days off to see her regular physician or head to a 24-hour emergency clinic.
“If you’re going to work these hours, be prepared to get up early if you want to go to the bank or to your leasing office or something,” says Stephenson. “You need to get up if you want to have enough time to do that. You’re not going to be able to afterwards. They’re not open for us.”
“My coping mechanism?” says Moloney. “On my days off, sleeping ten hours. Some weeks I don’t get that luxury.”
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