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Is US Ready for 32-Hour Workweek? Senate Hearing Weighs Pros, Cons

Time clocking station

The workability of a 32-hour workweek was dissected during a senate committee hearing March 14 chaired by Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP).

It’s an issue that hasn’t been addressed at the federal level since 1940, Sanders said, when Congress amended the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), thereby limiting the standard workweek from 44 to 40 hours.

“One of the issues we’ve got to talk about is stress in this country; so many people are going to work exhausted physically and mentally,” he said. “To suggest we have to maintain what we put in place 84 years ago [defining the workweek] does not make a lot of sense.”

It’s not a radical idea, Sanders said. He pointed to France’s 35-hour workweek and its consideration of reducing it to 32 hours, as well as Denmark’s and Norway’s adoption of a 37-hour workweek.

A day ahead of the hearing, Sanders introduced a companion bill to Rep. Mark Takano’s, D-Calif., Thirty-Two Hour Workweek Act, which would reduce the standard workweek from 40 hours to 32 hours by again amending the FLSA.

Takano’s bill amends the definition of the workweek in federal law; it does not make any changes or limit the number of hours that an employee may work in a standard workweek. His proposed legislation also would lower the maximum hours threshold for overtime compensation for nonexempt employees. 

However, a mandatory 32-hour workweek is bad policy, said Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-La., the ranking HELP committee member. Shortening the workweek, he predicted, will hurt productivity, which could result in the U.S. losing its status as the world’s wealthiest nation and potentially lead to offshoring of jobs.

“Government should not be in the business of undermining an employer’s ability to keep their doors open,” he said.

Juliet Schor, who leads an international team researching four-day workweek trials for 4 Day Week Global, said companies that experimented with the shorter work found it successful. That research, she noted, involved “a preponderance of small companies” in its sample.

More than three-fourths (78 percent) of 200-plus companies in Canada and the U.S. that participated in the six-month trials had 50 or fewer employees. The majority of trial participants—since expanded to include Brazil, Germany and Portugal—were white-collar firms, she said. However, participants also included mom-and-pop businesses, construction and manufacturing, finance, health care, IT, nonprofits, restaurants, retail, professional services, and a Colorado police department, Schor said.

“Companies in these trials do not follow a one-size-fits-all model. They are more like snowflakes—every company does it differently.”

She noted that managers and employees worked together to figure out how to make it work.

For example, 60 percent have a Fridays-off model, said Schor, author of The Overworked American: The Unexpected Decline of Leisure (Basic Books, 1992) and a professor of sociology at Boston College.

However, Liberty Vittert, professor of the practice of data science at the Olin Business School at Washington University in St. Louis, questioned the research. She noted that trial participants “are companies whose work tends to be able to adapt to a short workweek.”

Vittert pointed to a study in Japan as an example where productivity slowed during a shortened workweek. From 1988 to 1996, Japan reduced its workweek from 46 to 30 hours and “economic output fell by 20 percent. Productivity simply could not increase enough to compensate for the country’s economic loss,” she said.

Roger King, senior labor and employment counsel of the Arlington, Va.-based HR Policy Association, touched on a number of employer concerns, such as a company’s hours of operation.

“If an employer wishes to minimize overtime expenditures and not incur the cost of hiring additional workers, it may have to limit the number of hours of its operations,” King noted. Payroll likely will be impacted, too, he said.

“The amount of work an employer needs to have completed in a workweek does not change in most instances if an employer converts to a 32-hour workweek,” he noted in written testimony, “but under Sen. Sanders’ proposal, an employer will need to hire more employees or pay significant overtime for existing employees to meet its work requirements.”

Workers want flexibility—the ability “to select when, where and how they work,” he said.

“Don’t have government come in and intervene. This proposal is going in the wrong direction; flexibility is what we need,” he said at the hearing.

Kickstarter, a software development company in Brooklyn, became a fully remote company during the pandemic and two years ago transitioned to a four-day workweek, according to Jon Leland, its chief strategy officer. He also is co-founder of WorkFour, the national campaign for the four-day workweek.

“At the team level, we significantly trimmed meeting time, and identified and reduced the lowest-impact work,” he said. “Different teams had to make different adjustments. Our product teams focused on improving their development processes,” he added, citing one example.

The 32-hour workweek is a norm, Leland acknowledged when asked how his company handled deadlines with a shortened week.

“It’s not ‘pencils down’ at 32 hours.”

Shawn Fain, union president of United Auto Workers International, also appeared before the committee and offered written and verbal testimony.


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