What would you say to working 35 hours a week while still getting paid for 40?

I’ve not seen a story that details what American workers would say to such a change but the guess is that a high percentage would say it’s something they would like.

In Iceland, where there are only about 200,000 workers, it’s reported that 86% of the workforce has either made such a change or has contracts that allow them to negotiate such a plan without having their pay reduced.

A four-year trial of about 2,500 workers showed there was no loss in productivity. Things such as shorter, more-focused meetings were tried, some meetings were replaced with email or other electronic correspondence, and coffee breaks were shortened or eliminated. (Yay! I don’t drink coffee and thought such breaks were silly, the same as breaks to have a smoke.)

Employees reportedly said they felt less stress and had an improved work-life balance, whatever that is. You’ll have to believe Iceland’s Association for Sustainable Democracy, and the United Kingdom-based think tank Autonomy, for coming up with “work-life balance.”

One worker cited increased respect for individuals, along with recognition that workers have desires, private lives, families and hobbies. C’mon, working seven hours a day instead of eight reminds us that people have families and hobbies, as well as desires? That sounds fishy.

Cutting back on hours gained some prominence during the pandemic, some companies doing so, although others have long advocated such a move. For instance, a New Zealand company completed a yearlong trial of working only four days a week without cutting pay. Both Spain and Scotland are planning trials to subsidize employers that gave their employees a day off each week. There has also been talk in Japan of doing that, Microsoft in Japan conducting a monthlong trial of a four-day week that, the company said, resulted in 40% more productivity.

The New Zealand company that did the trial of a four-day week provided lockers for cellphones, soundproof meeting places, and allowed employees to put a red flag in their pencil holders that meant an employee did not want to be disturbed. The CEO of that company reported that employees’ time on non-work websites fell by 35%.

A manufacturing company in Pennsylvania went to 35 hours, with the same pay, and expected increased labor costs of 12% or more but found the increase was only 3%, due to more efficiency.

A trial program in Sweden in a large city found workers working six hours a day instead of eight, at the same pay. That program was eventually scrapped because it was deemed too costly.

We know that for years many farmers had work weeks of 60 to 70 hours or more. A long day in the fields, after milking in the morning, could be followed by milking again at night, farmers I knew in Sherburne County in the 1960s listening in the barn to night games of the Minnesota Twins while completing their nightly milking. Vacations? Unheard of for many decades among many farmers.

A six-day work week in the United States was the norm until the early 1900s, many looking down on those companies that went to five-day weeks. When the Ford company went to five days instead of six in 1926 a prominent CEO wrote that “the men of our country are becoming a race of softies and mollycoddles.” (Back then the definition of a mollycoddle was an “effeminate or ineffectual man or boy.”)

In 1933 during the Great Depression a federal bill was passed capping the work week at 30 hours to keep more people working as companies laid off workers. Five years later a federal bill was passed that mandated higher pay for anything beyond 40 hours. But it was a still a badge of honor in the United States if you worked lots of hours.

Other countries have been ahead of the U.S. in cutting hours. In 1975 workers in Germany and the United States worked about the same number of hours. Now, roughly, German workers put in 400 fewer hours a year than those in the U.S. and also have more paid vacation and holidays.

One way to fix things, some say, is a fairer distribution of profits, citing the ridiculous salaries and benefits of many CEOs, compared to the workers who work long hours to give companies their huge profits.

A recent study by one group shows the average American works 38.6 hours. A study by another company had a higher figure of about 44.5 hours. The second study showed 29% of Americans working 45 to 59 hours, with 16% at 60 or more.

If a switch was made to 35 hours in America, or to four eight-hour days, let’s say (there are many companies today where employees work four 10-hour days), there would be more time with family that some would like, and more leisure time. Some, of course, would seek a second job, possibly to put money away for an earlier retirement, or simply to pay the family’s bills.

And, of course, if lots of companies went to four days a week instead of five, we know what might happen: A push for three days a week would be just around the corner. — Luther Dorr

(Editor’s note: Dorr was the editor of the Princeton Eagle for 2 years and the Princeton Union-Eagle for 31 years.)

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