SCHMALKALDEN, Germany (AP) _ It's 1:45 a.m. when Leni Weisheit crawls from the warmth of her bed into the cold reality of workaday life for easterners in united Germany. Like tens of thousands of others, she heads west for a job she can't get near home.

The 40-year-old east German, born and bred in a Communist system, now commutes six hours a day by bus so she won't be among the roughly 2.2 million unemployed or underemployed east Germans.

After nearly nine hours on the job, Ms. Weisheit will be home by 6 p.m., traffic permiting. That leaves little time for much else but starting the cycle again.

''It's no way to live, but you get used to it,'' Ms. Weisheit says, sipping coffee in the tiny three-room apartment she shares with her 21-year-old daughter in this tumbledown eastern town.

''Sometimes I feel a little hopeless, but I have a regular income and that for me is comforting.''

Long commutes, alien to most western Germans, have become a way of life for easterners in search of work.

The German Institute for Economic Research estimates 600,000 easterners commute to jobs in former west Germany, noting the majority ''don't want to move to west Germany. In fact, they commute to avoid a move.''

Whether they could afford a move or find an apartment near to work - as Ms. Weisheit has tried - is doubtful.

Because many easterners, like Ms. Weisheit, don't own cars, the long day's journey into work is often made longer by dependence on public or company- sponsored transport.

Ms. Weisheit gathers each day in darkness with at least 40 others from her town for the 2:45 a.m. company bus to Nuremberg and their job at Quelle, Germany's giant mail-order house. They pay $2.20 for the commute.

Quelle employs about 1,000 easterners, though that number triples during special holiday seasons, company officials say.

Some easterners, like 20-year-old Martina Herrmann of Erfurt, have opted to be weekend commuters because the daily grind is impossible.

''I went to Frankfurt, because it was my absolute only opportunity to get a job,'' said Miss Herrmann. She shares a company apartment with three others during the week - rent is automatically deducted - then travels 4 1/2 hours home on the weekend.

''My parents are here, my sister and brother, my friends, my relatives. Everyone's here,'' she says.

The daily westward wave of workers is causing concern about the future of eastern Germany.

''If this remains the same, it means east Germany will become the future poorhouse of Germany,'' said Gerd Bruecker, head of the Erfurt office of IG Metall, Germany's biggest union.

The exodus of skilled workers to jobs at existing companies in the west doesn't encourage investment in the east, and many of the commuters are the east's youngest and brightest, Bruecker says.

In addition, commuting has put tremendous stress on eastern families.

''They have no family life,'' Bruecker explained, ''when they're not there part of the week, or they get home after midnight, or must leave at four in the morning.''

Eastern workers earn about two-thirds the salary of their western counterparts. Companies have argued that eastern productivity and expertise are not up to par.

The pay disparity is expected to end in a couple of years when newly negotiated union contracts for equal pay take effect.

Many eastern workers say they never expected to reach western income levels immediately. And more worry about the uncertainty of their new lives in a system that doesn't guarantee jobs for all.

''People have a lot more angst about the future,'' said Thomas Hoellein, a 20-year-old commuter from Sonneberg, an unemployment-wracked town near the former German-German border. ''And the togetherness of the people is not like it was before the revolution. Before, everyone was more open. Now, everyone thinks first about himself.''

Leni Weisheit also worries about her future, especially the employability of a middle-aged woman should she lose her current job.

While she's earned more in a year than she could have in 10 years in East Germany, she says ''the insecurity is always there.''

So Ms. Weisheit will continue getting up at 1:45 a.m., compressing her shopping and chores into Saturdays and limiting her catch-up sleep and free- time to Sundays.

''I live in the hope that things will change a bit,'' she says.