A 4-day week could be a huge boon for workers — but getting there won’t be easy
For nearly four years in the mid-1970s, I worked as a printer, a union job that demanded good mechanical ability and focused concentration. At the time, the industry was on the cusp of big technological changes in printing, with computers and photocopying eventually forcing massive changes on work flow and reducing the level of skills needed to do the tasks. But these changes didn’t appear at the relatively small shop—40 people with two dozen of us running presses—until years after I left.
One benefit of that job was the schedule. The pressmen (we were all male) worked a 13-hour-a-day schedule three days a week, and then had four days off. For me that usually worked out to one day of recovery with a late sleep-in, followed by a three-day weekend. Not everyone can handle such a schedule, and admittedly, around the 10th hour on the third day, even the youngest of us in the shop would be dragging. But those days off made up for it. For the owners, it meant having two fresh crews, each operating the presses for half the six-day week the shop was open.
Returning to a five-day-a-week routine was a bit of a shock. And then there were the 60-hour weeks when I stepped into management.
In a survey by the Workforce Institute at Kronos, 40% of U.S. workers say they would prefer a four-day week. Lately, talk about moving that direction has been growing. In a September report from the AFL-CIO Commission on the Future of Work and Unions, the nation’s largest federation of unions noted:
Our commission’s Service and Retail and the Federal Sector Subcommittees recommend strengthening the labor movement by mobilizing around such big issues as shorter work days and workweeks with no reduction in pay for workers. Work hours can be reduced by bargaining or legislating a four-day workweek; earlier retirement; stronger overtime protections; paid holidays; paid vacations; partial unemployment benefits for workers whose hours are reduced (“short-time compensation”); and the “right to disconnect” from digital devices and work. Most of these policies would redistribute work hours to those who have too little work.
The federation doesn’t mean a four-day, 40-hour workweek, but one consisting of 32 hours.
Back in 1866—when it wasn’t unusual for factory and other workers to put in six-day weeks on 12- to 16-hour shifts—the National Labor Union called on Congress to mandate an eight-hour workday. That went exactly nowhere. Then, in 1926, Henry Ford cut the workweek in his auto factories from the 8-hour-a-day, six-day-a-week schedule he instituted in 1914 to five days a week at 40 hours. Industrialists were aghast. But Ford wasn’t being a kind and caring boss: He had concluded workers were more productive if they did not work so many hours. A quarter-century later under heavy union pressure that included the first sit-down strike at the GM plant in Flint, Michigan, Congress passed the Fair Labor Standards Act, amending it in 1940 to mandate a 40-hour workweek in most industries.
Fast-forward nearly 80 years and Americans put in more hours on the job than the other developed nations of the OECD. On average, the OECD reports, a full-time U.S. employee works 1,768 hours per year, or 38.6 hours per week. Europeans work up to 19 percent fewer hours annually, or about an hour per working day. Last year, according to the OECD, Americans worked 106 more hours than Japanese workers, 248 more than the British, and 423 more than Germans. But respondents in the Gallup Poll’s annual Work and Education Survey for 2019 put the average American workweek at 44 hours. Salaried workers self-report an average of 49 hours a week. Whichever statistics accurately reflect the situation, Americans put in more hours on the job than most of Europe and even the notoriously overworked Japanese.
Alexia Fernández Campbell at Vox points out that the idea of a four-day workweek isn’t new or radical. In 1993, Boston College economics professor Juliet Schor proposed shorter workweeks in her book, The Overworked American. In its future of work report, the AFL notes that Shor puts forth a three-point argument, asserting “that reducing overall working time has the potential to produce a ‘triple dividend’: (1) spreading work hours to more employees, thus minimizing unemployment; (2) lowering stress levels, increasing leisure time and improving workers’ quality of life; and (3) reducing adverse impact on the environment.”
Where shorter workweeks have been tried, the results have been mixed. Here are a few examples cited by Campbell and reporter Niraj Chokshi at The New York Times:
- France mandated a 35-hour workweek in 2000 that has irked businesses, who say it costs them more to hire extra workers. But the law has been laced with so many loopholes that many employees easily circumvent it. And now, French unions are putting up a stink about additional relaxation to the law.
- In New Zealand in 2018, Perpetual Guardian, a will and trust firm, chose to experiment by having its workers put in 32 hours a week instead of the 40 they had been doing. Chokshi notes the company “said the change actually boosted productivity among its 240 employees. They spent more time with their families, exercising, and cooking. Those employees reported a 24 percent improvement in their work-life balance. Supervisors said the staff work attendance and creativity improved too. [...] The experiment suggests that simply giving workers more time to enjoy their lives makes them better workers.” After two months, the change was made permanent. Perpetual’s owner Andrew Barnes says “You’re not just getting the same productivity, you’re getting higher productivity.” He and a colleague, Charlotte Lockhart, have set up 4-Day Week, a nonprofit that aims to push the idea globally.
- The city government chose the Svartedalens nursing home in Gothenburg, Sweden, to run a trial, switching from an eight-hour to a six-hour day with no pay cut. Both staff and nursing home residents say this is better and improves how they are cared for. An audit for the first year under the program found less absenteeism and higher productivity. Not everybody thinks this is a good idea. Said Maria Rydén, Gothenburg’s deputy mayor, “It’s the type of economic thinking that has gotten other countries in Europe into trouble.” If the plan were adopted for all of the city, much less all of Sweden, she says, the costs to business would be disastrous.
- The orthopedics unit at Gothenburg’s Sahlgrenska University Hospital put 89 nurse and physicians on a six-hour day and hired 15 new staff members to fill the gaps this created and be able to keep operating rooms open more hours. There were costs: $123,000 a month. But the move cut absenteeism and boosted efficiency, the executive director told the Times. The unit is performing 20% more operations and has cut waiting times for surgery “to weeks from months.”
- Last summer Microsoft ran a month-long trial of a four-day work week with the 2,300 people in its Japan offices. Workers enjoyed five Fridays in August off without a cut in pay and the results showed employees were not only happier, but significantly more productive. More results: productivity went up 40%; workers took of 25% less time; electricity use fell 23%; and 92% of the employees said they preferred the revised schedule.
At the website of NYS Society of CPAS, Chris Gaetano writes:
The criticisms leveled against reducing the work week to four days, or even 32 hours, are similar to those raised other times there has been a reduction in the standard work day. A text from 1919 noted that British textile manufacturers greatly protested even reducing the work day from 12 hours to 10, saying it would kneecap productivity to the point where investments in the industry would no longer be worth it. In The Quest for Time, which outlines international movements for an eight-hour workday in the 19th and early 20th century, says that there was vicious resistance in France to a bill mandating one half-day off of work per week for women, with 10 of 28 local chambers of commerce formally opposing the measure; opponents thought it was an unwelcome intrusion into how they ran their businesses and said it would increase costs in the long run from having to hire more workers.
Despite these critics, however, the idea of a four-day work week, even one that retains 40 hours per week, is quite popular. A Rasmussen poll from last year found, for example, that 53 percent of Americans would rather have a four-day work week with 10-hour days than five days of eight-hour shifts.
Three-day weekends EVERY weekend and fewer hours each week for the same pay would obviously make a huge difference in workers’ lives, but getting there won’t be easy. After all, the AFL has nowhere near the clout of the Chamber of Commerce.