In 1938 the Fair labor Standards Act attempted to regulate the number of hours employers could demand that their employees worked per week in order to put an end to near slave-like conditions in which people were regularly forced to work twelve to eighteen hours a day. The act established the forty-hour work week, and provisions for overtime pay that we all have come to accept as standard. But even now a forty-hour workweek may seem like science-fiction to some. In the year 2000, a study found that twenty-five percent of fulltime employees regularly clocked over forty hours in a week. Ten percent worked fifty hours or more.[i]
As Maine’s economy gradually catches up to the world’s by swaying away from traditional production-focused industries such as commercial fishing and timber harvesting toward high tech research and service related industries, are all of those extra hours really worth it?
With OPEC predicting that the price for a single barrel of crude oil will top two hundred dollars, consumers should expect to see the price at the pumps surpassing the five dollar per gallon mark sometime in the near future,[ii] making the first and most immediate concern on most people’s minds these days the sky-rocketing price of gasoline.
Take a second to break the numbers down.
· Maine is currently home to 600,020 employees.[iii]
· Roughly eighty percent of them commute to work by car (figure is based on national average though, in Maine, I would suspect the actual number is much higher due to lack of mass transit options in rural areas.) That’s 480,016 people travelling to work by automobile.
· The average commute for each of them is nineteen miles each way (which translates into twenty-three minutes per commute.)
· The average mileage rating for cars currently on the road is twenty-one miles per gallon.
· Currently regular unleaded is hovering rslightly under four dollars per gallon.
Add it all up and Maine employees are currently paying an average of $3,474,401 per day just to get to and from work. Multiply that by five days a week and you get $17,372,007. Break that down to an individual level and the figures are even more startling. One person can expect to spend roughly $1,800 per year just travelling to and from work – and that’s at current gasoline prices.
Also, keep in mind that over twenty-percent of Mainers have commutes of forty-five minutes or more, and that those figures don’t even include all of the miscellaneous expenses of owning an automobile such as loan payments, maintenance, and insurance which can run upwards of $6,000 per car, per year. The cost is compounded even more when more than one person works outside the home in each household.
The Human Element.
Not all of the harmful effects of overworking are strictly financial. Sixty to seventy percent of atmospheric pollutants are caused by automobiles. A total of fifty percent of a person’s daily exposure to “ultrafine particles,” pollutant particles which are linked to cardiovascular and respiratory disease and are produced in-part by combustion engines, occurs during the daily commute due to the tendency of those particles to concentrate in high levels inside automobiles.[iv] With cardiovascular disease alone costing Americans $400 billion dollar per year,[v] reducing, even incrementally, an individual’s risk for developing such health risks would be worth a considerable sum.
More surprising perhaps are the social detriments of extended workweeks. Studies have consistently found that people who regularly work more than forty hours per week tend to drink more alcohol, smoke more, gain more weight, and be involved in more work-related injuries than those who work forty hours or less. In addition, they are more likely to suffer from depression and, those who are married, are more likely to file for divorce.[vi]
Social risk factors such as alcohol abuse and tobacco usage may lead to chronic health conditions and familial “baggage” that leach not only money from employers but employees from the available work force.
Many corporations and individuals are looking to a four-day work week as a viable alternative to wasteful overtime and sky-rocketing transportation costs. Indeed, one survey by Human Resources Management, found that thirty-eight percent of companies are offering some sort of “compressed” workweek (a typical forty hour week that is accomplished in four ten hour shifts rather than five eights.)[vii] Some corporations and individuals are going so far as to mandate thirty-two hour workweeks that are more in line with a European sensibility.
Ryan Carson, web designer, applications builder, and founder of Carson Systems, has been working a four-day work week for years. How, he asked himself, would it be possible to successfully run his business by working twenty-percent fewer hours? The answer came to him when he realized that “there will always be more work to do. Working more hours won’t change that. In fact, working more is actually counter-productive.”[viii] By precisely managing the time he allows himself, his work gets done and with fewer unnecessary interruptions leaving him with “more peace. More time to think. More time to enjoy life,” he says. “It’s fabulous.”
The idea is not new. The oil crisis of the ‘70’s prompted many corporations, individuals, and institutions to shorten their own schedules to conserve precious resources and energy and even before that, innovators such as W.K. Kellogg (founder of the cereal giant) reduced their standard workweek from forty to thirty hours. Even so, the idea has not been quick to catch on in Maine – perhaps because of the Puritan work ethic Americans in general and especially New Englander’s have chosen to espouse.
The key to successfully making the change, says John Challenger of Challenger Gray and Christmas, a nationwide consulting and coaching firm, is shifting the focus away from hours worked toward performance during those hours.[ix] In essence, employers need to stress quality over quantity. By cutting out unnecessary meetings, lost time during commutes, wasted time at the “water cooler,” and setting clear, attainable goals for their employees companies can focus and hone the work apparatus they already have in place into a product-driven juggernaut and potentially increase their productivity by as much as twenty-five percent.[x]
Several municipalities across the country have adopted shorter workweeks and have either realized or expect to realize significant savings.
· The state of West Virginia is considering cutting municipal workweeks to four days and estimates it will save 65 million gallons of gasoline per day.
· Marion County Florida has adopted a similar program and expects to save $250,000 per year.[xi]
· Birmingham Alabama has decided to compress its employee’s week to four ten-hour days which is estimated to save $500,000 to $1 million in the first year in fuel costs alone.
Recently, school districts in Maine tried to institute similar changes but education Commissioner Susan Gendron denied the request to shorten the school year to 175 days. The length of Maine’s school year, she pointed out, is state regulated and cannot be change without legislation. The request was made after district boards recalled the extraordinary circumstances that inspired Governor James Longley to allow such a change during the energy crisis of the ‘70’s.
Though the measure was temporarily defeated in Maine, school districts elsewhere have successfully adopted modified weeks. One such is the MacCray school district in Maynard, Minnesota. Superintendant Greg Schmidt was happy to reveal that the school year would now be 149 days instead of 172. Each day would include sixty-five extra minutes of instruction to compensate for the shortening. The change to a four-day week occurred after finance committees calculated a total savings of $50,000.[xii]
In addition to the monetary savings, several school districts in various states that have had four-day weeks for some time regularly reports less instances of student violence, increased test scores, and stricter adherence to rules laid down in the student handbook.[xiii]
Is it all good news?
Even if job markets do shift from hourly quantity-based pay to project and goal based, there will necessarily be deficiencies. It would be nearly impossible to complete the same amount of work in thirty-two hours as could be done in forty. Those deficiencies would be most noticeable in industries that require a five, six, or seven day presence – such as customer service and hospitality. To recover those lost hours, employers may find it necessary to search out new employees. Even so, the financial impact is negligible. Indeed, economists have found that, in the long run, it costs an average of twice as much to pay current employees overtime as it does to hire another person to cover those extra hours – even when the figures include benefits packages, taxes, and training![xiv] Also, hiring more employees will decrease joblessness and the drain on social services such as welfare.
The future looms large . . .
Whether or not they think it is a good idea, Maine employers may be forced to adopt some form of compressed workweek sooner than they think.
Dave Vaughan, executive director of Neighborhood Development Services in rural Ohio, recently faced such an ultimatum. When several of his employees informed him they would be searching out jobs closer to home or getting done altogether because the expense of travelling had overshadowed the wages they earned by working, Vaughan agreed to a four-day work week.
“In rural areas like we are, gas price increases are more challenging because we don’t have the mass transit alternative – we can’t jump on a bus or take a train,” he said. With no alternatives, he had to make the change because he couldn’t afford to and “didn’t want to lose people.”[xv]
With more than sixty percent of Maine classified as rural and over twenty percent of Maine workers commuting an hour and a half per day, many Mainers will soon be approaching their own personal threshold. Already, many workers find that they spend the first hour or even two of each shift working just to earn enough to buy the gasoline that got them there. If the price of crude, and coincidentally the price of gasoline, rises as high as some speculate, soon going to work might not be worth it!
Is a four-day workweek a viable option to avoid crisis? More and more individuals, companies, and corporations believe that it is.
[ii] Jack Cafferty; http://caffertyfile.blogs.cnn.com/2008/04/30/save-feul-by-working-less/
[iii] Maine Department of Labor statistics for the year 2007
[xi] Eric Wilson, King 5 News; http://www.king5.com/topstories/stories/NW_042708WAB_four_day_week_SW.a76728d4.html
[xv] “Workers shifting to 4-day Week to Save Gasoline,” Andrea Hopkins; http://news.yahoo.com/s/nm/20080529/us_nm/usa_workweek_dc