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Joi Sears headshot

Is Sleep the New Social Justice Issue?

Words by Joi Sears

It is a typical Monday morning for Maria Fernandes. It’s a little after 6 a.m., and she has just finished the overnight shift at Dunkin' Donuts. She pulls into the parking lot of a local convenience store for a quick nap. She texts her boyfriend, and he calls her back. They speak briefly about some upcoming plans with friends before saying their goodbyes.

Moments later, she reclines her chair, shuts her eyes and drifts off into a deep sleep. Splitting her time between three Dunkin’ Donuts locations, it is routine for Maria to nap in her car between shifts. A couple hours here, a few hours there; she’s grown accustomed to taking whatever rest she can get.

She sleeps with the engine running, most likely to keep the car cool in the summer heat. She keeps a container of gas in the back, just in case she runs out. Although her boyfriend warns her that this is dangerous, she can’t take the risk of waking up to an empty tank.

Unfortunately, his concerns materialized on the morning of August 25. The container of gas overturned, filling the car with deadly fumes as she slept. Maria Fernandes, 32, was found dead hours later. She was still wearing her uniform.

Maria’s death is an example of the stresses facing America’s low-wage workers. Adults who work multiple jobs are 61 percent more likely than others to report sleeping six hours or less. As health researchers continue to draw a connection between rest, work and poverty, it is clear that our society is becoming increasingly under-slept and overextended.

The dangers of sleep deprivation

Now, more than ever, Americans are starved for sleep. Up to 30 percent of adults report that they routinely sleep for less than six hours a night. There are over 40.6 million people who go to work everyday with far less than the seven to nine hours of sleep that's recommended by the American Academy of Sleep Medicine.


Many studies make it clear that sleep deprivation is a dangerous game. It is directly linked to an increase in morbidity and mortality. It weakens the immune system, increasing your chances of becoming sick. It can also lead to hypertension, high blood pressure and heart disease.

Depression, obesity and diabetes have all been linked to sleep deprivation. In some cases, it even leads to death. People who get less than six hours of sleep per night are four times more likely to die than those who get a full night’s rest, according to a study by the University of Pennsylvania.

A general lack of sleep decreases all types of neurologic functions. It decreases your ability to think clearly and rationally. A National Sleep Foundation survey shows that nearly 100 million sleepy Americans hop into vehicles each day. And each year, more than 100,000 motor vehicle crashes result in 1,550 deaths and 71,000 injuries due to drivers who fall asleep at the wheel.

The connection between sleep and socioeconomics

Research shows that individuals with lower socioeconomic status are more likely to have inappropriate sleep duration and poorer sleep quality. Lauren Hale, the editor of Sleep Health, explained that there are many possible reasons for this. “Hours spent sleeping are lost amid higher levels of anxiety, more financial insecurity, poorer health and less free time, with more time spent working low-income jobs and commuting to work.”


Sleep deprivation is directly associated with race/ethnicity and socio-demographics. African-Americans are over three times as likely as whites to report very short sleep, while Asians and non-Mexican Hispanics are two to three times as likely. Lower-income groups report very short sleep versus those who earn more than $75,000. Compared to college graduates, sleep deprivation is seen among all lower education levels. More education is associated with higher income, and higher income is associated with better physical health.

The effects of income on both mental and physical health are mediated by sleep quality. In many ways, sleep poverty is another form of social inequality. Short sleeping times directly correlate with scarcity in other areas such as money, time, food and opportunity.

The right to a fair wage

Maria Fernandes, like millions of others in her situation, had the potential to live a full, creative and productive life. Her inability to earn a living wage at one job forced her into an endless cycle of working multiple jobs, just to make ends meet.


Earning a little over $8 dollars an hour, she spent all of her time and energy working to pay the rent for a home she rarely slept in. In fact, she rarely slept at all -- sometimes going weeks at a time without a proper night’s rest. Because of this, her physical health and her mental well-being suffered. Perhaps if she had been a bit more alert, she could have prevented her death. Or perhaps if she earned a bit more money per hour, she could subsist on only two jobs instead of three.

The fact is: We live in an extremely polarized society when it comes to wealth and opportunity. The idea that everyone who works hard can make it is not just a myth, but a bold-faced lie. For many workers it doesn't matter how hard they work or how well they perform at their jobs, they will never escape the prison of poverty.

As long as a massive concentration of wealth is held in the hands of the few, we will continue to have extreme economic disparities. The harder it becomes for the working class to earn a living wage, the more we will waste one of our country’s most natural resources: the human potential.

Image credit: Flickr/Thomas Lieser

Joi Sears headshotJoi Sears

Joi M. Sears is the Founder and Creative Director of Free People International, a social enterprise which specializes in offering creative solutions to the world's biggest social, environmental and economic challenges through the arts, design thinking and social innovation.

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