The five-day week is so ingrained in American life that everything from package tours to wedding prices to novelty signs is built on it. When you live it every Monday through Friday, year after year, it can be hard to imagine anything else.
But working eight hours a day, five days a week (or more) is not inevitable. That schedule only became part of American labor law in the 1930s after decades of union activists went on strike, tired of working the 14-hour days required by some employers. In fact, one of the greatest goals of the American labor movement since the 19th century has been "an attempt to win back time," Erik Loomis, a history professor at the University of Rhode Island, told Vox.
And now, more than 15 months after the pandemic, there's a growing discussion about how American workers can reclaim more of their time. The trauma and disruption of the past year and a half has led many Americans to reassess their relationships with work, whether they are restaurant operators tired of risking their security for poverty wages or office workers quitting, instead of giving up remote work. And part of that reassessment involves the work week, which many say is due to restart.
In the last few decades, The work of many employees has increased well over 40 hours a week thanks to a combination of weakened labor laws and technologies that allow bosses to reach workers at any time of the day or night. At the same time, low-wage and hourly workers are often subject to unpredictable schedules that can change at any time and may not give them enough paid hours to live on. Today's work plans, with their combination of “overwork and then no work,” in many ways reflect the conditions that preceded the reforms of the 1930s, Loomis said.
Then as now, the country could be ripe for change. Some employers test the four-day week. A recent study of shorter working weeks in Iceland was a huge success and increased worker wellbeing and even productivity. And the workers themselves are pushing against schedules that crowd out everything that doesn't work. During the pandemic, there is a growing feeling that "we have a life – and do we work to live or do we live to work?" Rachel Deutsch, campaigner for workers' justice at the Center for People's Democracy, told Vox.
But to make the workweek really fair and humane for all Americans – and to give us more time for things that aren't work – the country needs systemic changes that will help workers regain power. Otherwise, only the privileged benefit from the new interest in shorter working weeks – if anyone benefits at all.
The 40-hour week was a hard-won victory for labor activists
Most of the time in the 19th century, there were many factory workers and other low-wage workers. The work week was what your employer said, 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 illustrated by the 1880s slogan: “Eight hours for work, eight hours for rest, eight hours for what we want".
They won several victories – for example, the Ford Motor Company reduced their weekly working hours from 48 to 40 hours in 1926 (perhaps more because of Henry Ford's belief that fewer hours would increase workers' productivity). But it wasn't until the 1930s that the Great Depression and further mass strikes convinced President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the 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 workers if they worked more than 40 hours a week. There were exceptions – for example, farm workers were not guaranteed overtime – but the eight-hour day and five-day week became the law of the country for millions of workers.
Not everyone wanted to stop there. "In the 1940s and 50s there was a real argument about whether or not the eight-hour day was enough," Loomis said. The 1960s continued to push for a six-hour day or other means of shortening the working week, but rising unemployment in the 1970s kept union leaders paying all their attention to saving jobs. The idea of a shorter working week fell by the wayside.
But since then, many Americans' work schedules have only gotten worse. For example, many white-collar workers (as opposed to those who pay hourly wages) are exempt from the overtime requirements of the Fair Labor Standards Act, and employers have taken advantage of this to demand more and more hours from these workers. In 2014, the average worker worked 49 hours a week, with 25 percent working more than 60 hours, according to a Gallup survey – and working hours for many actually increased, not decreased, during the pandemic.
Meanwhile, the rise of smartphones and laptops has broken down the barriers between work and home, so bosses can 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 working day from 9 to 5 is a mirage."
Hourly workers, especially in low-wage service jobs, have now faced another problem: the increase in just-in-time planning, in which employers set their working hours only days in advance, depending on factors such as the workload of a particular business. This practice has resulted in many large employers keeping most of their employees part-time so they can be called up at anytime and not be paid when they are not needed. It's a way of essentially “putting all of the risk of your business model on the workers,” Deutsch said.
For employees who are subject to just-in-time planning, long working weeks are not necessarily the problem: Instead, a third of retail and hospitality workers in a survey in 2019 stated that they involuntarily work part-time and want more hours than theirs want employers would give them. This can make it difficult or impossible for people to pay their bills, requiring a second job – except that unpredictable schedules make juggling two or more jobs complex to say the least. And a constantly changing work schedule can also make childcare more difficult to organize – the same survey found that unpredictable schedules for parents led to instability in children's routines, as well as anxiety and behavior problems in children.
An ever-changing schedule meant that Madison Nardy, a former beauty consultant at a Target in Philadelphia, never knew how much money she was going to take home each week as she struggled with her job attending community college and to arrange the care of her mother. who has a disability. Even though she was hired with an understanding that she would work 30 or 35 hours a week, "my hours soon began to fade," she told Vox. "In a week I would have eight hours, the next week it would increase to 20 and then back to twelve."
The hours she worked could be punishing – sometimes she was supposed to close the shop at 1 am and come back the next morning at 7 or 8 am, a practice called "knocking." Her ever-fluctuating schedule left her so exhausted and stressed that there were days "when I went to the bathroom and just cried," Nardy said. "I was always walking around like a headless chicken."
The pandemic could pave the way for another work week revolution
Nothing in the Fair Labor Standards Act prohibits the practices Nardy said she witnessed – employers change workers' hours with brief notice or give each employee too little work to make a living. “The only protection we have for hourly workers comes from a time when overwork was the only problem,” said Deutsch.
Recently, however, there has been increasing pressure on workers' rights in general, not just those related to work scheduling. The $ 15 battle, for example, has raised the minimum wage in many states and drawn the attention of policymakers to the problems of hourly workers. “Labor reform is increasing in the Democratic Party for the first time since the 1930s,” said Loomis, also because “the people are out on the streets and demanding them”.
And the pandemic only intensified that push. Record numbers of Americans quitting their jobs in every sector of the economy, with nearly 4 million resigning in April alone. Whether they're hourly retail workers frustrated with contingent schedules or higher-paid employees tired of working 60-hour weeks, there is "now a broader consensus that our work should carry us." said German. "Our whole life shouldn't be at the mercy of a job that doesn't allow us to be successful."
More livable schedules have succeeded elsewhere in the world. Companies in Japan, New Zealand and elsewhere have experimented with shorter workweekly in recent years and often report happier workers who actually do their jobs better. But one of the largest and most prominent experiments in recent times has taken place in Iceland, where local and federal authorities working with unions started two shorter working week trials, one in 2015 and one in 2017. The trials switched workers from a 40-hour week to 35 or 36 hours, with no wage cut. Not only office workers participated in the studies, but also day care workers, police officers, caregivers for people with disabilities and people in a variety of other professions.
The results were impressive, according to a report on the studies published in June by Autonomy, a UK think tank that helped with the analysis. The workers reported a better work-life balance, less stress and more well-being. “My older children know that we have shorter opening hours and they often say something like, 'Is it Tuesday, Dad? Are you finished this morning? Can I come home right after school? ‘” One father said, according to the report. “And maybe I'll answer 'Of course'. Then we go and do something – we have a nice quality time. "
And perhaps counterintuitively, worker productivity generally stayed the same or even increased during the tests. Workers and managers worked together to make changes like reorganizing shift changes and reducing meetings, Jack Kellam, an Autonomy researcher who co-authored the report, told Vox. "These experiments were not carried out from top to bottom."
Just having more rest can have helped people be more productive – as the Autonomy researchers find, overwork can lead to fatigue, which actually lowers productivity.
Encouraged by the results of the study, many Icelandic companies have adopted shorter working hours, with 86 percent of the labor force either already working shorter hours or having contracts that will be gradually reduced in the coming years. The Autonomy report also generated global interest as workers and companies alike began to think about what workplaces should look like. For example, the shift to remote working over the past 15 months has shown that "very drastic changes in work practices can happen pretty quickly," said Kellam. Now his work on the Iceland Studies has made headlines in countries from Australia to Germany, and several companies have turned to Autonomy for advice on introducing shorter working hours for their employees.
But for something like the Icelandic processes to work in the United States, big changes would be required. For one thing, the trade unions in Iceland, which represent 90 percent of the workforce, played a major role in negotiating the processes and the resulting long-term introduction of shorter working hours. But union density is much lower in the United States, at just 10.8 percent of the workforce.
Simplifying union formation would be a big step in helping American workers negotiate better hours, Loomis said. The PRO bill, which would undo years of anti-union legislation at the state level, would be a start – but so far it seems unlikely that the Senate will pass.
When it comes to unpredictable working hours, years of worker activism in cities like New York and San Francisco has resulted in fair working week laws that typically require employers to report working hours appropriately (often two weeks in advance) and compensation for last-minute changes . as well as the prohibition of "knocking". MP Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) and Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) introduced such a law at the federal level, the so-called Schedules That Work Act – but it also received little approval from the Republicans in the Senate.
Such nationwide changes may seem a long way off, and in a work-driven country like the United States, it can be difficult to imagine reforms that would help (some) people work less. However, some say the pandemic, along with growing worker activism in recent years, has created conditions similar to the 1930s when big changes finally seem possible. The fact that labor law reform has found near universal support among Democrats in Congress – after the party was not a priority for decades – is significant, Loomis said. And that was largely because the workers asked for it.
Nardy is one of the workers committed to change. She was part of a coalition that got Philadelphia to pass a fair work week law in 2018, and is now studying political science at Temple University with the goal of running for city council. "There isn't really someone in the office who really cares about workers' rights," she said.
But one day that person could be her. And while workers in the United States do not yet have the bargaining power they wield in other countries, their voices are getting louder and their discontent more palpable day by day. At this point in the pandemic, many are saying, "Maybe the life I led seemed inevitable and immutable, maybe I don't want that," Loomis said. It is a kind of "spontaneous realization by millions of people that they could do better".