The majority of Americans think of Labor Day as a day off of work and their last chance to go to the beach or pool, or to attend a cookout with friends to celebrate the end of summer. Too often we overlook its original purpose – to celebrate the economic and social contributions of workers, and to remember the extraordinary sacrifices made by union members in their fight for the weekend, paid vacation, sick time and the 40-hour workweek. Though they may seem commonplace today, men and women gave their lives in the struggle for work standards that improved the lives of so many who followed.
However, we seem to have taken a step backward in the workplace, because to most Americans, the 40-hour workweek seems like a thing of the past. Many people must work extra hours or find a second job just to make ends meet. And employers are seeking to squeeze ever more out of an exhausted workforce.
So Americans are working harder than ever before, and for less, while unemployment stubbornly remains above 8 percent.
What if I told you our nation could create jobs, achieve better work-life-balance, and improve worker productivity for businesses by shortening the workweek? It’s not as farfetched as you might think.
France instituted a 35-hour workweek in 2000, which experts say brought unemployment down and improved worker productivity. Many other advanced economies likewise have workweeks of 35 hours or less.
Furthermore, study after study reveals that in both blue- and white-collar jobs, long hours kill profits, hurt worker productivity and jeopardize safety on the job. These undisputed facts have been largely forgotten as the actual American workweek steadily increases.
By better enforcing the 40-hour workweek at a more livable wage, employers would have to hire unemployed Americans to work the overtime hours, which they force their current employees to work. Furthermore, the productivity of all workers would go up, benefiting employers. Increasing employment also means more money would be spent at local businesses. It’s a win-win proposition for all.
A look at its history shows there is real science behind the practice, and for many years corporate America embraced it. Most people think that the eight-hour day and the 40-hour workweek were created simply to give people time every week to live their own lives. In fact, this is not the case.
In 1914 Henry Ford famously took the radical step of doubling his workers’ pay and cutting shifts in his auto plants from nine hours to eight. Although he was criticized, many of his competitors later climbed on board when they saw how Ford’s business boomed as a result.
When the Great Depression hit, President Herbert Hoover proposed a bill that would reduce the workweek to 30 hours in an attempt to avoid mass layoffs. It passed in Senate; however, it didn’t make it through the House.
Not surprisingly, FDR also tried to push for shorter hours to lower unemployment, but was overruled by the U.S. Supreme Court. Instead, the Walsh-Healy Public Contracts Act of 1936 required the federal government to pay its contractors overtime wages after eight hours of work in a day. And then the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 established the five-day, 40-hour workweek for everyone, a standard we observe today.
By the 1960s, the benefits of the 40-hour week were accepted almost beyond question in corporate America. In 1962, the Chamber of Commerce even published a pamphlet extolling the productivity gains of reduced hours.
But today, many employers do not want to invest in additional staff, believing they can cut corners by keeping the workforce small, paying them lower wages and forcing overtime on their workers. Thus over the past few decades, 50- or even 60-hour workweeks have become the norm, expected by employers and needed by workers to make ends meet. Unfortunately, what they are really doing is robbing Peter to pay Paul. Those extra hours cost them more than they’re worth in terms of productivity loss. And for the workers, there is a price to be paid for these long days that many of us accept without complaint. Our families, our health, and sometimes our safety all suffer.
Americans are not only working more hours per week, but our compensation has either flat-lined or fallen behind where it was just a few years ago. The toll this takes on morale also affects productivity in an era when so many are struggling to get ahead and find success.
The overall economy suffers, too, because the growing workload of those who are employed limits job growth and increases unemployment. Consumers buy less as a result, and the tax base shrinks.
There was a time in this country when individual workers could earn enough to support a family from a job in which they worked just 40 hours per week – a job that also provided paid sick days, vacations, health insurance, and a pension. But that kind of employment is a thing of the past for too many U.S. workers.
However, this Labor Day, let’s look back at the hard fought 40-hour workweek and start a national discussion on how shortening the workweek could help our nation dig out of this recession by putting more people to work, improving the productivity of workers, and improving the lives of all Americans.