WASHINGTON (AP) - Until recently, Bettie Ridgley and three women co-workers at Bethlehem Steel were feeling the strain of rotating hours so they devised a way to split up round-the-clock shifts so that each could have more time with loved ones.
A poll commissioned by the AFL-CIO finds nearly half of working women - 46 percent - work a different shift than their significant other, sometimes by choice. The labor federation released on Thursday the Jan. 6-11 telephone survey of 765 working women over age 18.
Ridgley, 52, a crane operator who has worked for Bethlehem outside Baltimore for nearly 25 years said families and friendships can be strained when work schedules impose separation.
''It caused relationships to suffer.... We'd become depressed, less motivated,'' she said. Her own marriage failed, but she has grandchildren and her new schedule means she can help care for them more easily.
The poll is part of the AFL-CIO's effort to keep tabs on the priorities of working Americans and mobilize them to vote in this fall's elections.
The labor federation has endorsed Vice President Al Gore and is mounting a vigorous campaign on behalf of pro-labor congressional candidates, mostly Democrats. Gore is scheduled to address an AFL-CIO-organized gathering of female union members in Chicago this weekend.
The poll found that working women share some concerns men have raised in other surveys, including improved health care and retirement security.
But women also highly ranked better equal pay laws, improvements in child care and getting family and medical leave laws expanded to guarantee paid time off.
Karen Nussbaum, director of the AFL-CIO's working women's department, said those concerns seem to be ''directly related to the strains of balancing their work and family'' that are evident in the reasons many women give for working different shifts from their spouses.
In households with children under age 18, women were even more likely to say their work hours differed from their spouses - 51 percent, compared with 41 percent of those who don't have young children, the poll found.
''If you can't afford child care, then you work a different schedule than your husband,'' Nussbaum said.
Jennifer Dorsey, 31, an assistant produce manager at a Kroger supermarket in Cincinnati, is on maternity leave after giving birth to her first child. She used to work days and spend evenings with her husband, a carpenter whose outdoor jobs require daylight.
However, when she goes back to work, she said she plans to request some evening shifts, likely 4 p.m. to midnight.
''I think that a couple of days a week we're going to have to play the ... parents where one comes and one goes because day care is so expensive,'' said Dorsey.
Some parents who can afford childcare choose to work different schedules anyway because they want their children to spend time with them, not day-care providers. Other women make the tradeoff to pursue an attractive career.
''I'm not the kind of person who can really sit still,'' said Debora Sutor, 39, a Chicago-based flight attendant who sometimes goes several days without seeing her husband, a dayshift concrete company superintendent, and their two sons, aged 12 and 16.
Still other women have may no choice in the matter; 34 percent of those surveyed said they have no say in their working hours.
Chamber of Commerce spokesman Frank Coleman said the recent tight labor markets have prompted more employers to offer flexibility in schedules to keep workers happy.
''Business groups also have been strongly supporting legislation to provide more flexible working environments,'' Coleman said. That includes comp-time and flextime proposals unions have opposed because of concerns for workers' rights to overtime pay.
Few statistics are available comparing men's and women's work schedules.
The most recent Labor Department data, from 1997, showed 14 percent of American women and 19 percent of men working shifts other than the most common daytime, weekday hours. But it did not compare shifts of men and women living in the same household.
Although the AFL-CIO poll used a much smaller sample of the population than the Labor Department did, its findings suggest that evening and weekend shift work by women may be on the rise: 28 percent of women polled said they work shifts that include some weekend and evening hours.
The AFL-CIO survey was conducted by pollsters Lake Snell Perry and Associates Inc. and has a margin of error rate of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.
On the Net: AFL-CIO working women's department: http://www.aflcio.org/women/index.htm
Labor Department's Bureau of Labor Statistics: http://www.bls.gov