Alexandria company highlights human cost of increased worker productivity

By Theresa Vargas
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Nick Alcanter, busy at work at a printing company in Alexandria, looked out the window, saw landscapers manicuring the Old Town waterfront and turned to his co-worker.

"God, I envy them so much," he said.

The men outside had one job to do; Alcanter has two. The men would probably go home on time; odds were Alcanter wouldn't.

At 27, Alcanter survived three layoffs in one year at his previous workplace. At his current job, he watched as three people were let go. He knows he's fortunate not to be among the unemployed millions, but like much of today's workforce, he feels increasingly stretched, drained, worked to the bone.

An unusually sharp increase in productivity since the financial crisis began in 2008 has allowed employers to avoid hiring more workers even as the economy climbs out of recession. The result is that for many Americans, the alternative to not working has become working harder.

Nowhere is this more evident than at small businesses such as AlphaGraphics, the Alexandria company where Alcanter is one of eight full-time employees, down from 12 two years ago. For those who remain, the modern-day mantra of "doing more with less" has changed the rhythm and intensity of daily life.

A cup of yogurt sits in a bowl at Brenda Middleton's desk. It's the remnants of the breakfast she ate at her desk.

Middleton, the graphics technician in charge of fixing clients' designs before they go to print, has increasingly found herself eating within reach of the keyboard where she spends much of her day. She stays well after the doors close at 5 p.m., which is why she can no longer point to any television shows she consistently watches -- "I can never know if I'm going to be home at 8 o'clock on a Wednesday" -- and why she doesn't get out as much as she'd like: "It's probably bad to say, but I don't have a social life. I don't have a boyfriend or a husband."

Middleton, 40, has been with the company for seven years, long enough for it to feel like family. It hurt when she saw four co-workers leave last year, three of them in layoffs. That's when she noticed the change in workload.

"It was a little bit of whiplash effect -- you got used to doing less and now you have to do more," Middleton said. "When we did have to downsize, the people that remained were the ones who could wear more than one hat."

A few weeks ago, a corporate adviser visited to offer tips on efficiency. Middleton said the consultant observed her from afar and then told her that she was quick.

"I have to be, to get my work done," she replied.

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