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Taking Control of Our Work Lives

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Work in modern America really sucks. There are many reasons for this, but one of them is that the old idea of the 40-hour week–long a goal for workers in the past–has been eroded to the point of meaningless, with all sorts of ways for employers to manipulate workers to control their lives. Yesterday being May 1, there were lots of interesting articles about work out in the world. This one by Leo Gertner and Shaun Richman was one of the best, thinking about this very problem.

Our modern problem of striking a meaningful work-life balance is so complex that there’s no one law that could reduce our lifetime obligation to work for wages. But we should start with wages, knowing that they can alleviate poverty, if not solve inequality. As corporations adopt a $15 minimum wage, it’s become clear it’s the bare minimum. By 2024, a single adult without children will need $31,200 ($15 at full-time hours annually) to maintain an adequate standard of living anywhere in the United States. If the wage is not indexed to inflation, it will immediately lose its value again. If 1968’s $1.50 minimum wage had kept up with inflation, it would be close to $12 today and nearly $21 if matched with growth in productivity.

The overtime protections in the Fair Labor Standards Act need to be rethought as well. Right now, salaried employees like social workers and administrative office staff can essentially work unlimited hours without overtime. Obama’s Department of Labor tried to fix this by raising the salary threshold for overtime eligibility from $23,660 to $47,476, but conservative states and business groups successfully sued to block it. Trump’s Labor Department recently lowered the proposed threshold to $35,000, leaving half the affected workers behind. Even when employers are required to pay overtime, it hardly acts as a deterrent to hazardous levels of work.

We should cast aside the 40-hour week altogether—it is an arbitrary and antiquated formula, leaving plenty of room for employers to impose 12-hour days, split shifts, “clopens,” and all kinds of on-call assignments that deprive a worker of the space to be fully human when she’s finally off the clock. Why not six-hour days! Four-day weeks? Would that be so horrible?

But even doubling or tripling overtime pay would not fully discourage employers from overworking their employees so long as the cost of health care is factored into payroll. One less-discussed benefit of Medicare for All is the freedom it would grant workers to walk away from jobs they hate and extra hours they’d rather not work. Employers would lose the perverse incentive to either underwork a large workforce or overwork a smaller one in order to avoid insurance obligations. Medicare for All would enable us, as a society, to spread the work around a bit more evenly.

Social Security is also an important component of striking a better work-life balance. For that reason, we need to expand its coverage to public-sector, domestic, and agricultural workers who don’t currently benefit from a guaranteed federal pension—funding that expansion by taxing incomes above $132,900. Lowering the retirement age would create a better work-life balance too.

Paid vacation and sick leave are also a part of the equation. We are dead last when it comes to guaranteed paid time off. Countries like South Korea, Germany, the United Kingdom, France, and Chile all guarantee employees over 30 days off, while the U.S. won’t even guarantee pay for federal holidays. New Jersey and Washington are among the states leading the way by offering some form of parental leave, largely through temporary-disability insurance. Ten states and D.C. now provide paid sick days. New York City is even considering a paid-vacation law. These policies make employment less unstable for millions of workers and provide needed rest without risking job loss or savings.

The federal government could build on these local efforts by creating a new supplemental Social Security paid-leave fund. Setting it up as an insurance fund everyone pays into helps ensure that workers actually use their earned time off. Those who don’t raise families could use the time off for other pursuits, like returning to school, or even as a bridge to earlier retirement.

In our age of inequality, we are constantly hustling for advantages to meet the spiraling cost of living. Our current work culture tells us if only we got more money or hours, maybe ends would magically meet. Experience, however, makes clear that for the vast majority of working Americans, this time-and-money trap falls short of creating the conditions for a good life.  What really would help is more control over our time.

It’s time we cut work down to size.

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