The standard work week that hourly or salaried, non-exempt employees experience has a very interesting past. My favorite fact is that in the 4th century A.D., the Roman Empire had 175 holidays a year, with a very interesting form of government…
In the middle ages, people were obligated to work eight hours a day, six days a week, excluding holidays. As time moved on, work schedules actually increased a bit, especially in the United States. In around the year 1800, a 14-hour work day was customary in the United States for men, women, and children. This was largely due to the Industrial revolution. Then in 1840, President Martin VanBuren issued an executive order that laborers and mechanics be limited to working 10 hours in a day.
It wasn’t until the International Labor Organization held its first conference in October 1919 that ‘Hours of Work’ convention established an 8- or 9-hour work day, which constituted a max of 48 hours per week.
Just as the work week seemed to settle, the Great Depression hit. In an effort to avoid layoffs, President Herbert Hoover proposed a bill that would reduce the work week to 30 hours. It passed in the Senate; however, it didn’t make it through the House.
When Franklin D. Roosevelt entered office, he tried to push again for shorter hours, but they were overruled by the United States Supreme Court. Instead, the Walsh-Healy Public Contracts Act of 1936 passed, which 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 passed, which established the five-day, 40-hour work week for everyone, a standard we observe today.
The work weeks for countries around the world have varied over the yars, but overall seem to have increased a bit so that they are similar to the work week of the United States. What is interesting though is that, according to statistics from the Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development, the average work week for many countries is relatively lower than one might assume.
Since the recession, the average work week for the United States is 33 hours. This is lower than Poland and the Czech Republic, which average 38 hours per week, Greece, which averages 41 hours per week, and South Korea, which averages 44 hours per week. However, the majority of the world works fewer average hours per week than the United States. For instance, in Spain, Denmark, and Ireland, the average work week is 31 hours. In France and Belgium, the average work week is 30 hours. And in the Netherlands and Norway, the average work week is an unbelievable 27 hours. Also, in many countries, the average number of paid vacation days averages 20 days (or four weeks), whereas in the United States, the average vacation period is 10 days.
The basic premise of the new Health Care law is that if a company is required to offer medical coverage to its employees then anyone working 30 or more hours a week needs to be thrown into the mix. There is a complicated formula used to determine the employee’s actual hours if there is no set directive as to the number of hours an employee is scheduled to work in a given week. A business must provide health care if it has 50 or more employees working an average of just 30 hours per week, which is 10 hours per week fewer than the traditional 40-hour work week. If an employer has 50 or more ‘full-time employees’ and does not offer health insurance, it must pay a penalty per employee for each month it does not offer coverage.
Economically it has been proven repeatedly that reducing the employees’ number of hours for a company in order to increase profits is not nearly as effective as having a layoff. A recent article in climateandcapitalism.com stresses that a 30 hour work week is not short enough…..There is a correlation between the number of hours worked and the ability to have leisure time with family and friends. When Karl Marx wrote in ‘The Working Day’ he quoted results of a poll of those who had labored excruciating hours at a Lancashire factory. “They would much prefer working 10 hours for less wages….”
There is still a high level of unemployment in the midst of an array of useless products. An hour of labor today produces more goods than has ever been the case in the history of humanity. Manufacturing too much ‘stuff’ (remember ‘Stuff’ from George Carlin….I’m dating myself now) stresses every level of the environment. Research repeatedly shows that once important needs are met, additional belongings bring no additional happiness.
Every year we seem to be able to churn out more ‘stuff’ with fewer hours of labor. Benjamin Franklin, wrote over 200 years ago:
….if every Man and Woman would work for four Hours each Day on something useful, that Labour would produce sufficient to procure all the Necessities and Comforts of Life, Want and Misery would be banished out of the World, and the rest of the 24 hours might be Leisure and Pleasure…..
However, doesn’t the fact that some non-exempt individuals earn $7.25/hour while others earn $300.00+/hour in the United States have any bearing on the number of hours an individual works in a given week? Some individuals making $7.25/hour are unable to meet their basic needs without government intervention of some sort….and it turns out that ‘economics’ is the basic reason for a longer work week from the employee’s view….fear that they will lose medical care, pensions and related survival necessities….
In the early 1900’s, Ford Motor Company ran dozens of tests to discover the optimum work hours for worker productivity. They discovered that the ‘optimum’ is 40 hours a week, and that, while adding another 20 hours per week provides a minor increase in productivity, that increase only lasts for three to four weeks, and then turns negative. Believe it or not but Henry Ford was a major proponent of shorter work hours, which he introduced into his own factories. He believed that workers (who were the main consumers of products) needed adequate leisure time to consume products and thus perceive a need to purchase them. Anyone who has spent time in a corporate environment knows that what was true of factory workers a hundred years ago is true of office workers today. People who put in a solid 40 hours a week get more done than those who regularly work 60 or more hours a week.
Economists can’t seem to agree as to whether an overall shorter work week helps or hinders the economy, however, with the fading of the middle class, we have to look at the wage paid for the hours worked, no matter how few or how many. Remember, survival benefits need to be met, no matter what the income.
Arguments for the shorter work week/day include a worker’s level of education (more time to learn, take classes, etc.) and improvements to a worker’s health (less work related stress and extra time for exercise). Reduced hours also save time on day care costs and transportation, which in turn helps the environment with less carbon-related emissions. These benefits increase workforce productivity on a per-hour basis. Some proponents have an obscure view and also argue that reduced work hours would increase consumption and invigorate the economy.
Please take the time to let me know what your opinions are on the length of the (or your) work week. Feel free to email me at email@example.com or leave a message on this site.