Every weekday morning, Joe Cook rises at 6 a.m. in his suburban Chicago apartment, wipes the sleep from his eyes and sits down to breakfast with his wife, Erin, before she leaves for work at 7. Though he doesn't have to be at his job until 2:30 in the afternoon, he's become an early riser out of necessity -- it's often the only opportunity he has to see Erin during the week.
Cook, 24, averages an hour commute to his job as a production assistant at a television station in Rockville, Ill., a 55-mile drive that often gets snarled at one of three toll booths on the way. With another 60-minute drive at the end of his shift, he doesn't return home until almost midnight, usually long after Erin has gone to bed. After 14 months on the job, driving 110 miles every day has become a time and money suck that has led Cook to seek employment closer to home.
"I still enjoy what I do for the most part, but it's getting to the point where it's just not worth it. The commute is just crushing me," he said.
The Cooks are one of thousands of American families spending more time traveling to and from work than they ever imagined. The U.S. Census Department recently released a survey that determined American workers spend more than 100 hours commuting to work each year, and for some the number of hours lost to commuting dwarfs vacation time and puts a squeeze on family and leisure activity.
The survey, which evaluated 2003 commuting times in all 50 states as well as 68 U.S. cities and 231 counties with populations of 250,000 or more, determined the average daily commute to work lasted 24.3 minutes, and was often much longer in larger cities.
New York logged in with the country's longest commute, at 38.3 minutes each way. Chicago was second at 33.2 minutes, and other cities in the Top 10 included Riverside, Calif.; Newark, N.J.; Philadelphia; Los Angeles and Miami.
For Cook's salary of $8.25 an hour, the long hours and hectic drives hardly seem worth the effort. He estimated it costs him $70 per week in tolls and gas, about the equivalent of one day's pay. But just quitting is not an option.
Erin Cook is six months pregnant with the couple's first child, and although she is also employed and makes nearly twice as much money as her husband, she is covered under the medical insurance offered by Joe's employer.
"I'm actively looking for other employment, but I've only got so much time during the day to do job searches," he said.
As American cities expand into far-away suburbs, career counselors say external issues like long commutes have become major factors in job searches. Most counselors advise clients to weigh the balance between life and work before committing to a new job.
"I advise people not to do something that they know might make them miserable, and a long commute is certainly one thing that can make people miserable," said Brad Karsh, a Chicago-based career consultant and president of the job preparation firm JobBound.
Counselors say it's important to think of how a potential job will affect your entire life, not just how it will pad a bank account or advance a career. If a job requires a person to sacrifice too many other lifestyle components, they say, it's probably not a good fit, no matter how big the paycheck.