Life Away From the Rat-Race: Why One Group of Workers Decided to Cut Their Own Hours and Pay

Public-sector workers in California's Amador County learned what the Europeans have long understood: having a life is intrinsically valuable.

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Editor's note: Check out John de Graaf's and David Batker's new book,What's the Economy For, Anyway? Why It's Time to Stop Chasing Growth and Start Pursuing Happiness.

Public employees in Amador County, Calif., were outraged when their hours and pay were cut at the height of the Great Recession. But two years later, 71 percent of them voted to keep their shorter schedules despite the paycut. Their experience provides an important lesson in balancing work and family life, and offers hope that work-sharing might offer a way to put more Americans back to work, as it has in Europe.

With its timbered ridges and deep canyons extending to the snowy wilderness of the Sierra Nevada, Amador County, population 38,000, lies in the heart of California’s Gold Rush country. It’s decidedly conservative; no Democratic presidential candidate has carried the county since Jimmy Carter in 1976. John McCain won nearly 60 percent of the Amador vote in 2008.

Like all of California, Amador was hurting in 2009. The state, seeking to eliminate its $35 billion budget deficit, cut back on social service support for its counties, and Amador had to find a way to cope with less. Conservative county supervisors limited all but essential employees to a four-day week. Workers were to report Monday through Thursday for nine hours each day. County offices would be closed on Fridays. Salaries would be cut by 10 percent commensurate with a 10 percent reduction in work hours.

When word of the change came down, the workers, and SEIU 1021, the union that represents them, were livid. Like other public employees, they had already made key concessions in recent years, and justifiably, felt their family budgets were severely strained.

“The cut meant a lot of money for a lot of people,” said one Amador County program manager, who asked to remain anonymous (the issue still generates animosity among some workers). “Then there were the questions like, how can we get the work done in four days?"

But despite the workers’ protests, the county argued that, otherwise, it would have to lay off workers and county supervisors were adamant that they didn’t want layoffs. Angry, but understanding the need to preserve jobs, union leaders agreed to the arrangement, but for only two years.

Voting to Keep the Shorter Week

So in 2011, county workers were given a choice of sticking with four-day shifts or returning to a five-day week with a pay increase, but losing some of their colleagues to layoffs. Without directly consulting its members again, the union chose the five-day week. In June, the remaining employees started working Fridays again. Amador County cut 17 workers to balance its budget. 

The remaining workers were glad to be getting higher pay again, but many soon had second thoughts. Quite a few were unhappy, because they were actually enjoying their four-day weeks. Some went fishing or camping over the long weekends or enjoyed other outdoor activities that are popular in this rural county.

“I was at first very concerned about losing the 10 percent,” one worker told me, “but I found that I could make it work without a huge hardship. And I found that what I gained in time actually outweighed what I lost in money.”

Then too, many of the workers sympathized with their union brothers and sisters who’d lost their jobs. They pressured SEIU for a vote that might restore the four-day week. In August, the union polled its members. Of the 178 workers (nearly the entire work force) who voted, 71 percent (126) chose to return to the shorter week, even with less pay. Only 29 percent (52) wanted to keep the longer workweek.

The Benefits of More Time

A month later, county employees returned to a four-day, 36-hour schedule. Sixteen of the 17 laid-off workers were rehired. It’s not perfect, a source told me. The work must now be accomplished in less time. “A lot of folks still come in for a bit on Fridays,” she reports. But she still believes that on-balance most people feel the trade-off is worth it.

With both parents in a majority of families working full-time these days, weekends in America have become “workends” for most couples. For many Amador parents, the four-day week changed that. “The Fridays off gave me a chance to run errands and get chores done while my kids were at school and that lets my weekend be a weekend,” one told me. “Before, it felt like I had only one day off a week that was really for pleasure. Now I’ve got the whole weekend. It helps. It’s nice to have this balance in terms of your family life and your sanity.”

The Amador County story deserves closer attention from researchers. It’s conceivable that the extra day off has relieved stress and improved family life for many workers. It may also be reflected in better health outcomes. We need studies to understand whether or not this is the case, since it might also be possible that nine-hour days and faster work schedules have negated any of these possible gains. It seems a valuable university research project. In any case, we do know that the reduced schedule has been popular with many workers.

Bread, and Roses Too

It’s unfortunate that the Amador case study involved a compulsory reduction of hours. But many agencies, non-profits and businesses might want to offer more opportunities for shorter hours with reduced pay (but job security and benefits) as in Europe. In the Netherlands, under the Hours Adjustment Act of 2000, workers are allowed to downsize their hours, while keeping the same hourly pay, full healthcare and pro-rated benefits.

Unless employers can prove a serious financial hardship for their firms, they must grant the request for shorter hours. More than 95 percent of requests are approved. Consequently, the Dutch now have the highest percentage of part-time workers and shortest working hours in the world. They also have among the highest levels of labor force participation, low unemployment and among the highest levels of confidence among workers that they can find another job if they lose theirs.

An article in the Canadian magazine MacLean’s reports that Dutch women, who take great advantage of the law, are “the happiest in the world.”

Germany and Belgium have now adopted similar versions of the Dutch policy. In the U.S., a similar policy could allow those who want to work less to cut back, opening space for others who simply want to work. As early adopters experiment with these new schedules and find them to their liking, word will spread and other workers will follow.

It could be a win-win-win—more employment, better health and more work-life balance. Moreover, on a finite planet, there are limits to economic growth and material affluence. Trading money for time can help us avoid pushing those limits.

The Gallup daily happiness poll shows that Americans are 20 percent happier on weekends than on workdays. Finding ways to offer longer weekends for American workers, who work some of the longest hours in the industrial world, ought to be part of the progressive agenda. Happiness science shows that people don’t always know what will make them happy; consequently, they tend to choose money over time. But an experience of more time and the life satisfaction that flows from it can change that attitude.

This year is the centennial of the famous Bread and Roses strike in Lawrence, Massachusetts. The slogan “We want bread and roses too!” runs deep in labor history, reminding us that there is more to life than money. It’s a lesson that has been confirmed for many in Amador County, California. Amador is only a microcosm and a very small step up a big mountain of overwork and consumerist values. But mountains are conquered by single steps.

John de Graaf is a filmmaker and co-author of "Affluenza: The All-Consuming Epidemic" and “What’s The Economy For Anyway?”