Shorter Hours, Everywhere But Here?

from ASR 86

Nearly a third of U.S. workers are putting in 45 hours or more a week in their jobs, and many have been forced to take second jobs to make ends meet in the face of precarity, low wages, and the rising cost of living. About 8 million US workers put in 60 or more hours a week at work, and these are among the worst paid of all workers.

The U.S. has officially had a 40-hour workweek since 1938 (about 50 years after national strikes demanded the 8-hour day), though the Fair Labor Standards Act covers only about 15% of workers. And for a time, the 8-hour work day and 40-hour week were nearly universal. Indeed, New York City electricians and many workers at Kellogg’s won the 30-hour work week.

But in the last few decades, the hours of work have steadily crept upwards in the United States, with bosses misclassifying workers as managers or professionals or independent contractors in order to evade FLSA requirements, or simply paying the legally required overtime rate, which is often significantly less than the cost of hiring new workers.

Long work hours are bad for our health, seriously cut into the time we need to live fulfilling lives, and have decimated our communities and civic institutions. Exhausted workers struggle even to get enough sleep, let alone engage in their children’s education or participate in community life and activism. And because we’re working so many hours (and for so many years, unable to afford retirement), growing numbers of people find themselves pushed out of the workforce, excluded from the necessities of life and subject to an ever-more-punitive and limited social welfare system.

It’s not even clear that the bosses benefit, at least economically, from our long work hours. A number of experiments around the world have demonstrated that cutting the workweek from five 8-hour days to four (a 20% cut in work hours) has little to no effect on productivity – indeed, employers report that it results in increased productivity more often than less.

In Britain, 73 companies employing more than 3,300 employees are currently working a four day work week as part of an experiment to test the impact on profitability. During the six-month experiment, workers work 20% less but receive full pay. Halfway through the experiment productivity has remained about the same or even increased, while workers report being better rested (getting nearly a full hour of additional sleep each night) and better able to take care of their basic needs.

This is consistent with past experiments with shorter hours that have almost uniformly found that workers benefit without significantly impacting employers. In Iceland, where several employers (accounting for a bit more than 1% of workers) cut hours to 36 per week or less, most said the new schedules saved them money while productivity stayed
the same or improved. Workers reported less stress and, of course, better work/life balance. As one worker noted, shorter work hours respects the fact that “we are persons with desires and private lives, families and hobbies.” Iceland is now in the process of expanding four-day schedules to more than 80 percent of the workforce, a process facilitated by nearly universal unionization rates.

In December 2022, New Zealand-based 4 Day Week Global released data from 33 participating companies that employed 969 people based in the US, Australia, Ireland, the United Kingdom, New Zealand, and Canada who all adopted a four-day work week in a pilot program. They found the shortened work week was a “resounding success on virtually every dimension.” Revenue increased, workers took fewer sick days, and two-thirds of workers reported being less burned-out, the extra day without work allowed exercise to increase by about 23 minutes per week, and sleep problems decreased by 8%.

Another pilot is underway at a dozen Canadian companies, including Blackbird Interactive Inc., a Vancouver-based video-game developer with 300-plus employees. Blackbird, which works on the Minecraft franchise, reports no discernible change in employee productivity after six months on the reduced schedules.

So why haven’t bosses in the U.S. jumped on the four-day workweek bandwagon? There are many jobs – assembly line workers, store clerks, telemarketers – which by design require workers to be continuously present. Many of the firms that have signed on for four-day studies are more dependent on worker creativity and initiative, and so can more easily adopt the new schedules.

Some U.S. firms have tested shorter weeks, even in retail settings, but without reducing work hours. Business Insider reports that a Chick-fil-A franchisee in Florida launched a three-day, 40-hour work week and received 400 applications for one job, despite the 13- or 14-hour shifts. (This may speak more to the continuing difficulty many workers have finding jobs than to any desire to put in 14-hour work days, inevitably spending much of the “free” days recovering from the grueling work.) Manufacturers have similarly experimented with longer shifts, in an effort to avoid paying overtime while reducing the disruptions associated with shift changes. Actually reducing work hours in such contexts would almost certainly cost employers money, absent dramatic productivity increases that are difficult to realize in fast food outlets (or on assembly lines that are already running at a breakneck pace).

Indeed, after decades of strong growth (none of which was passed on to workers, either as higher wages or through shorter hours), productivity has stagnated in recent years as new AI systems and other technologies have actually reduced production even as they drive up costs. Anyone who has interfaced with an AI customer service bot (online or on the phone) knows firsthand that these systems are a productivity sinkhole, yet the bosses continue throwing resources at them. Much recent technology has substituted complexity for efficiency, resulting in car doors that use more parts than entire cars did a decade ago, but do not work better. Most of the improvements to computer speed and memory have been wasted enabling a new generation of ever-less-efficient programs, while computer makers remove basic functionality from their devices – requiring time and expense to install peripherals to restore functionality that was taken for granted 20 years ago.

And yet even these half-hearted forays into shorter work weeks serve to remind us that the domination of our lives by work is not inevitable. Even many employers recognize that everyone might be better off if we worked less. A 32-hour week, while reclaiming only a tiny fraction of the time stolen from us through more than a century of increased productivity and speed-ups, offers us a day in which we could actually live our lives rather than simply recuperating from wage slavery, as well as helping some of our unemployed fellow workers – at least in those sectors where a continuous physical presence on the job is required. Of course, those bosses will fight even this modest step tooth and nail; relaxing much of the week is all very well for them and their investors, but it will require a struggle to get them to allow us to partake in this much-heralded leisure society.

For example, Canadian scaffolding company AlumaSafway has warned workers who have been refusing “voluntary” overtime shifts that they face firing, a blacklist, and possible jail time. The Alberta Labour Relations Board ruled in August 2022 that a letter circulating among scaffolders at a Suncor site that asked workers to refuse overtime until conditions were improved violated their union’s no strike clause, even though the union contract explicitly states that overtime work is entirely voluntary.

If we stand for it, bosses like this will demand and get 12- and 14-hour days and 60- to 80-hour work weeks even though the research suggests they could still be profitable working 32-hour weeks. There’s no reason that all the work that actually needs doing – that meets real human needs – couldn’t be accomplished in 16 hours of work a week, but it will take a determined labor movement to make any progress in that direction.

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