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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.