Most Americans are familiar with a classic story of U.S. labor history. Once we worked long and arduous hours, with only minimal control over when we arrived at work and when we returned home. But then laws were passed to limit excessive labor, and we now enjoy a standardized 40-hour week and a weekend — a just reward for our daily grind won after a years-long struggle.
That story, while largely true, is incomplete. The original campaign of the U.S. labor movement was to reduce work time without reducing pay, and it was very successful. As late as the 1970s, many industrial workers enjoyed so much paid vacation time they referred to it as a sabbatical, and the popular press warned that we were “within striking distance” of a four-day week.
What most people don’t know is that after that century-long decline, the annual hours we work have risen considerably since the 70s. Data from the Economic Policy Institute show that work hours rose 13% from 1975 to 2016. Though the workweek remained relatively stable over this time, this change reflects an increase of about five additional weeks per year.
Typically, the richer a country is, the less time its citizens spend working. But the United States is different. Though at midcentury, Americans worked less than Europeans, the situation has dramatically changed. In 2018, we worked on average about five hours per week more than the French and one full day per week more than the Germans.
The coronavirus pandemic has underscored the demands that are made on workers’ time, as white-collar workers struggle to keep up with demanding jobs from home without childcare, healthcare workers are dragooned into 24/7 shifts, and essential workers are treated like the on-demand services they provide.
Popular discussions of overwork tend to focus on striving professionals, but it’s the hours of low-wage workers that have increased the most. The bottom 20% of wage earners increased their annual hours by almost 25% since the late 70s, compared to just 3.6% by the highest earners, a shocking reversal of past trends. Still, as a result of rising inequality and the sinking of real wages, many workers today seek even longer hours, and simply can’t afford to work less.
Some of these same workers — especially in retail, fast food, and hospitality — suffer from irregular schedules that are unpredictable by design, and often change at their employers’ whims. Less than one quarter of hourly workers have a regular standard shift, while almost 60% have a variable schedule, a happenstance linked to emotional distress, poor physical health and other hardships. Their hours are so frequently cut or extended that they cannot plan to live off one job but find it almost impossible to hold down two. These changes were not something we voted on. Instead, the unequal redistribution of our labor time reflects deepening economic insecurity and social inequality, the roots of which far pre-date the current pandemic.
Although shorter hours were once a hallmark of social progress, today they signal a crisis for low-income workers and their families. With record numbers of Americans out of work, and the government withholding unemployment insurance, it might seem tone-deaf to promote shorter hours. Yet this is exactly the time such a movement has been historically useful.
During past crises, such as during the Great Depression, the government imposed work-sharing programs to guard against widespread unemployment. The idea is simple enough. During economic downturns, employers and employees agree to reduce the labor hours of a firm’s workers as opposed to laying off a select few. Such programs essentially spread the income losses that occur during recessions or downturns across a wider group of people, preventing more damaging consequences, like the loss of a job.
Rather than just reallocate work time, however, the Covid-19 pandemic requires a bold plan to allow more people to live in dignity with much less work. To do that, we must disentangle healthcare from employment.
A Medicare for All program, perhaps the most contentious issue now dividing the Democratic Party, is a strategic part of the fight for shorter work hours. Healthcare is closely tied to the time we spend at work, as 49% of Americans receive insurance through their employer. Minimum hour eligibility requirements for coverage and high out-of-pocket expenses keep workers locked into long work schedules just to receive medical care.
Bargaining over healthcare and related benefits is a driver of stagnating wages and long hours. Since the 70s, unions have negotiated higher benefits such as healthcare instead of wages, driving up the fixed costs per worker. This incentivizes employers to press for longer hours from workers rather than hire others, who would also require benefits. The value of fringe benefits almost doubled over the second half of the 20th century, rising from 17% of pay in 1955 to 32% of pay in 2020.
For the past two decades, healthcare has been a constant drag on union contract negotiations, as employers continue to shift healthcare costs onto workers. Healthcare disputes have become the leading instigator of strikes, lockouts and concessionary bargaining. During strikes, employers often freeze health insurance and pension benefits to try to force workers to concede. A Medicare for All system would cost employers this powerful leverage they hold by guaranteeing workers’ healthcare, allowing unions to focus on bargaining for other benefits such as higher pay and shorter hours.
Healthcare reform isn’t the only way to get to shorter hours. The Fair Labor Standards Act offers only modest enforcement of scheduling and work time regulations — and it hasn’t been adequately updated in decades. Lifting the exemptions on salaried workers, increasing enforcement and eliminating mandatory overtime pay are all ways to incentivize employers to hire more people rather than overwork existing employees.
Many countries have attained fewer working hours through provisions for guaranteed family and medical leave, legally mandated vacation time, more sick leave and greater unemployment benefits. These policies would certainly reduce work time too, especially for women, who still perform more unpaid domestic labor, and who are overrepresented in part-time work.
All of these policy reforms are unlikely without a strong labor movement to fight for them. After all, it took a century-long struggle by workers to win the eight-hour day, even if it’s less common now than we think. We need a mass movement to win greater collective control over work time — a return to labor’s forgotten fight.
The fair scheduling movement has won legislative victories in six states, which cover almost 2 million workers, granting them the right to a more just and predictable work schedule. It’s a useful example of how struggles over work time today aren’t primarily about increasing leisure, but controlling the existing hours we have.
The measure of any society lies in how it treats its workers. Combine long hours for some, insufficient hours for others, and erratic schedules with decades of flat or declining wages, and it becomes clear that workers in the United States are giving far more to the economy than they’re getting in return.
It’s often said that the American Dream is broken and must be repaired. But we now have an opportunity to dream bigger than simply breathing life into an old vision. Instead, we should redesign our work lives so that trading most of our waking hours for money isn’t the only pathway to a dignified life.
Reader donations, many as small as just $5, are what fund the work of writers like this—and keep our content free and accessible to everyone. If you support this work, will chip in to help fund it?
It only takes a minute to donate. Click here to make a tax-deductible donation.