After weathering a year of economic catastrophe, we could all use a day off… permanently.
That’s one idea that’s catching on in some states that may reduce the workweek for government employees to four days. Though long weekends year-round might sound like a gift to slackers, the policy is motivated chiefly by fiscal belt-tightening. In the midst of yawning budget gaps, the truncated workweek is becoming an attractive prospect to cash-strapped states including Virginia, West Virginia, and Iowa. Earlier this year, the postal service weighed a proposal to shore up its finances by shaving a day off of mail carriers’ famously stalwart delivery schedule.
Another benefit of a cheaper, “compressed” workweek is a shrunken utilities bill. The government uses less energy to keep buildings operating and employees save on gas consumed in their daily commute.
Working one less day each week does not, however, necessarily translate into less work. The four-day scheme typically requires employees to work ten-hour days. And there are reasons for workers to prefer a long weekend, or to prefer more hours in the course of a day for sleep and leisure.
Utah’s 4⁄10 week, implemented in 2008, appears to be fairly popular with state employees. But the success of any alternative work schedule is always a function of workplace conditions, economic climate and employee motivation.
The longer workday is tied to a decline in overtime hours; spent staffers are presumably eager to escape the office after a ten-hour shift. Does the extra day off balance out the sacrifice? One survey of human resource directors in cities running on a 4⁄10 or alternative workweek, as reported by New York Magazine’s Jennifer Senior, “Sixty-four percent reported an increase in morale. And 41 percent reported an increase in productivity.”
Utah Governor Jon Huntsman told NPR in February:
It’s attractive to anyone who enjoys life outside of their office as a state employee, which is to say, most people, whether they have family, friends, hobbies that they like to pursue…. We’re seeing a decrease in leave — both annual and sick leave. When people have a three-day weekend to look forward to, there apparently is less a demand to put in for sick leave. We’re finding that our workforce overall is more efficient during those four days, and accomplishing more during the span of four days than they would have during five days.
A restructured workday schedule might even skim off some of the opportunities for “waste, fraud and abuse” that politicians are always bloviating about. A four-day workweek bill has also been floated in New York (and will likely go nowhere, ironically, since Albany’s too dysfunctional to get any work done, anyway). Senior argues that while many essential services like hospitals must stay open all week or round the clock, the cluttered offices in the state’s bureaucratic bowels could probably use some streamlining.
But aside from the Tayloristic model of efficiency, a non-standard week only works when it jives with people’s needs. Transitioning to a four-day schedule could require disruptive shifts in child care arrangements, for instance. Hawaii’s government recently drew the ire of parents when it shifted to a four-day school week, shuttering schools on seventeen Fridays to cutback education spending. The plan, which impacts more than 170,000 children across the state, is tied to a pay cut for teachers, and many fear it will shortchange children’s education.
Utah is still hammering out its shortened week. A follow-up report by NPR aired the praise of one government accountant, Sonia Smith: “I like being able to have one day set aside to do everything that I need to do, and then the other two days where I can devote to my son.” But another state employee, Nicki Lockhart, said the long workday felt “like an eternity” and left her completely drained by the time she got home. And energy savings have so far fallen short of initial projections.
So would an expanded workday in government help liberate workers from the daily grind, or just drive more exhaustion? Whether we like it or not, labor in the private sector is growing more mobile and freewheeling, which means the todays workers need flexibility—as well as the revamped protections — to roll with the punches.
The emergence of the 4⁄10 week prompts us to rethink how much of our lives and natural resources are consumed by the daily machinations of labor. Our standard five-day, forty-hour week grew out of the labor movement’s ongoing struggle for humane working conditions in the face of relentless industrialization.
Today, the shortened week, whether it stems from budget strains or grassroots initiative, reflects how the Information Age economy is reshaping the contours of labor and continues to blur the line between work and life. As the workforce shifts toward knowledge industries, cramped cubicles and pink collars… maybe it’s time to reschedule.
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Michelle Chen is a contributing writer at In These Times and The Nation, a contributing editor at Dissent and a co-producer of the “Belabored” podcast. She studies history at the CUNY Graduate Center. She tweets at @meeshellchen.