With Memorial Day weekend in the rearview mirror, it’s back to business as usual: The two-day weekend is over. It’s Monday. It’s time to go back to work.
But what if it wasn’t? What if instead of punching the clock five days a week you got one more day off? What if every week was like that? How would you feel? Would it change your life? Would it change your family’s?
It’s been over 80 years since Congress last redefined the hours of the national workweek, and even then, it took them decades to get from talking about it to action. The efforts first gained traction in 1890 after the U.S. government began tracking private-sector labor hours. At the time, the average employee in manufacturing was found to work over 100 hours a week.
This stood in stark contrast to a proclamation made in 1869 by President Ulysses Grant that limited government workers to 40 hours per week without a reduction in pay. After backlash from labor activists, Congress amended the Fair Labor Standards Act to define the national work week as 40 hours per week. Of course, this wasn’t done until 1940, decades after the initial concerns.
The 40-hour work week set more than 80 years ago is the same definition that still applies to workers today — or at least it’s supposed to. But surveys have consistently shown that despite the law, American workers are still getting a bum deal.
For decades, workers have reported that hours are going up, wages are stagnating and overtime pay and pensions are all but being eliminated. Adding insult to injury, corporations have learned to find loopholes in the ancient legal framework, often forgoing the hiring of full-time employees in favor of low-pay, zero-benefit contract gigs.
Even as Americans once again reported work weeks inching upwards to 50, 60 or even 80 or more hours, Congress has done little to fix it. Combined with advances in technology and today’s expectations of employees being available 24/7 via smartphone or email, is it any wonder why Americans struggle with mental health or why the Editorial Board of The New York Times would opine in 2021 that Working Less Is a Matter of Life and Death?
Critics of a 32-hour work week often claim that working less isn’t possible, that somehow businesses will fail to thrive and innovation will slow. There’s little to suggest these fears are founded, and far more to suggest that improvements to the work-life balance would actually help our work culture thrive.
In one article by the Harvard Business Review, the research presented shows that when 32-hour work weeks are implemented effectively, workplace productivity is not decreased. At the same time, the reduced hours offered immense worker benefits such as decreased stress and an overall improvement in health and well-being — both key factors in companies saving on health care costs and sick days. And given productivity isn’t decreased, worker pay cuts should be off the table.
Recently some lawmakers are starting to show real interest in four-day work weeks. Legislators in at least two states have introduced bills proposing related work schedule transitions. One congressional member has reintroduced a bill to legally redefine the national workweek as 32 hours, arguably the best solution as it’s a direct follow-up from Congress’ most recent definition in 1940. Most promising, some companies are beginning to pilot four-day workweeks, the surest sign that the powers that be see a real potential for change on the horizon.
Yet so far, none of the efforts to redefine full-time work to four days per week have actually crossed the finish line, and none appear to have even come close with lawmakers at large despite it being the next logical step with a majority of public support.
So what’s the hold-up? American workers have already waited nearly a century for change. Congress has changed it before, and Congress can change it again. How many more years will they make us wait?
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