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The Work Week


One thing the pandemic has done is made people question whether the 5-day work week really makes sense. People had done that before the pandemic too, but like a lot of things, the pandemic took previous conversations and made them increasingly relevant. Iceland for instance has engaged in a trial run of 4-day weeks which received quite positive response from both workers and employers. What about here in the United States? Anna North has a good piece in Vox about the decline of the 5-day work week here and I was happy to provide some historical context about these issues.

The five-day workweek is so entrenched in American life that everything, from vacation packages to wedding prices to novelty signs, is built around it. When you live it every Monday through Friday, year in and year out, it can be hard to imagine any other way.

But there’s nothing inevitable about working eight hours a day, five days a week (or more). This schedule only became a part of American labor law in the 1930s, after decades of striking by labor activists who were tired of working the 14-hour days demanded by some employers. Indeed, one of the biggest goals of the American labor movement beginning in the 19th century was “an attempt to gain time back,” Erik Loomis, a history professor at the University of Rhode Island, told Vox.

And now, more than 15 months into the pandemic, there’s a growing conversation about how American workers can take back more of their time. The trauma and disruption of the last year and a half have a lot of Americans reevaluating their relationships to work, whether it’s restaurant servers tired of risking their safety for poverty-level wages or office workers quitting rather than giving up remote work. And part of that reevaluation is about the workweek, which many say is due for a reboot.

Over the past few decades,work for many salaried employees has ballooned far beyond 40 hours a week, thanks to a combination of weakened labor laws and technology that allows bosses to reach workers at any time of the day or night. At the same time, low-wage and hourly workers are frequently subject to unpredictable schedules that can change at a moment’s notice, and may not give them enough hours of paid work to live on. Today’s work schedules, with their combination of “overwork and then no work,” in many ways mirror the conditions that preceded the reforms of the 1930s, Loomis said.

Then as now, the country may be ripe for a change. Some employers are testing out four-day workweeks. A recent study of shorter workweeks in Iceland was a big success, boosting worker well-being and even productivity. And workers themselves are pushing back against schedules that crowd out everything that isn’t work. During the pandemic, there’s a growing feeling that “we have one life — and are we working to live, or are we living to work?” Rachel Deutsch, director of worker justice campaigns at the Center for Popular Democracy, told Vox.

Of course, even winning the 5-day week was a multi-generational struggle. So what is happening now is part of that continuity of struggle.

In the 19th century, many factory and other low-wage workers were at work nearly all the time. The workweek was whatever your employer said it was, which “could be 14 hours a day, it could be six days a week, it could be seven days a week,” Loomis said. In “strike after strike after strike,” he explained, workers fought for a more livable schedule, a push exemplified by the 1880s slogan, “eight hours for work, eight hours for rest, eight hours for what we will.”

They won some victories — the Ford Motor Company, for example, reduced its workweek from 48 to 40 hours in 1926 (though that may have been more about Henry Ford’s conviction that fewer hours made workers more productive). But it wasn’t until the 1930s that the Great Depression and more mass strikes convinced President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and reformers in the federal government that something had to change.

The result was the Fair Labor Standards Act, passed in 1938, which — among other reforms — required overtime pay for many employees if they worked more than 40 hours a week. There were exceptions — farm workers, for example, were not guaranteed overtime — but for millions of workers, the eight-hour day and five-day week became the law of the land.

Not everyone wanted to stop there. “There really were battles in the ’40s and ’50s over whether or not the eight-hour day was sufficient,” Loomis said. Pushes for a six-hour day or other ways of shortening the workweek continued in the 1960s, but rising unemployment in the 1970s had labor leaders focusing all their attention on trying to save jobs. The idea of a shorter workweek fell by the wayside.

But since then, a lot of Americans’ work schedules have only gotten worse. For example, many salaried workers (as opposed to those paid an hourly wage) are exempt from the overtime requirements of the Fair Labor Standards Act, and employers have taken advantage of this to require more and more hours of these workers. As of 2014, the average salaried worker worked 49 hours per week, according to a Gallup survey, with 25 percent working more than 60 hours — and working hours for many have actually gone up, not down, during the pandemic.

Meanwhile, the rise of smartphones and laptops has broken down the barriers between work and home, allowing bosses to contact employees at any time of the day or night. As management professor Scott Dust wrote at Fast Company earlier this year, “thanks to technology, the eight-hour, ‘9-to-5’ workday is a mirage.”

Hourly workers, especially in low-wage service jobs, meanwhile, have faced a different problem: the rise of just-in-time scheduling, in which employers decide on worker schedules just days in advance, depending on factors like how busy a particular store is. That practice has led many large employers to keep most of their employees part-time, so they can be called in at a moment’s notice, and not paid when they aren’t needed. It’s a way of essentially “offloading all of the risk of your business model onto workers,” Deutsch said.

While the schedule of a professor doesn’t really fit into a standard workweek, it has long seemed to me that if I was in a different kind of job, I’d rather work longer but fewer days than the endless slog of the 5 days, for the commuting if nothing else. Of course, everyone has a work life they can bring to this conversation and I expect the comments will be interesting.

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