Oakland County, just outside of Detroit, Mich., hasn’t had it easy in a year of recession and auto industry blues. Budgets are stretched to the breaking point and it is now considering asking employees to take a pay cut. But last fall, the county government did offer its employees one very nice break: the chance to start working a four-day workweek. So far it’s been a hit with the 450 workers (13 per cent of the county’s workforce) who’ve signed on. “The employees absolutely love it,” says Nancy Scarlet, the county’s director of human resources. How could they not? They can now enjoy long weekends all year, with no cut in pay. For vacation-starved North American workers, this is the stuff dreams are made of.
Oakland’s four-day plan originally came about as a reaction to rising gas prices last year. Workers would still work 40 hours, but by cutting a day of commuting, they’d save money, with the added environmental benefit of putting fewer cars on the road. But there have been unexpected benefits for the county too, like declining overtime payments, says Scarlet. Lately, the county has been working to convince some local businesses to follow its lead.
Oakland is far from the first jurisdiction to sing the praises of the reduced work schedule. For the past year, Utah has imposed a Monday to Thursday schedule on 17,000 state employees—part of a trial program it calls Working 4 Utah. It has shaved millions from its utility bills and cut greenhouse gases by over 10,000 tonnes. In a recent survey, 83 per cent of the workers said they’d like to stick with the abbreviated week, says Jeff Herring, director of Utah’s department of human resource management. There are ongoing trials in Washington state and Hawaii. West Virginia and Virginia are studying the idea as well. Even the U.S. Postal Service has floated taking a day off each week. There are potential pitfalls—some argue that productivity ultimately suffers—but these experiments have led to the beginning of a rethinking of the Monday to Friday, 9 to 5 grind.
The four-day workweek has fallen in and out of vogue since at least the 1970s, when it was a popular reaction to soaring gas prices. Proponents say that today the benefits of lopping a day off the workweek (and extending hours on the remaining four days) are too good to ignore, particularly as governments struggle with rising debts. New York assemblyman Michael Gianaris put it forward earlier this year as a “win-win proposition” that could save the state US$30 million a year by reducing maintenance, transportation and building costs, as well as energy use. It cuts down on daycare costs and absenteeism rates, and both Utah and Oakland report that it’s helped them attract younger workers who are drawn to the more flexible schedule.
The severity of the current recession has been a big factor in resurrecting the popularity of the shorter workweek, especially in Canada. There’s been an “incredible mushrooming” in government-sponsored work-share programs that allow workers to switch to 32-hour weeks to avoid layoffs, says David Robertson, the director of work organization and training at the Canadian Auto Workers union. The CAW has close to 25 of its bargaining units participating in the program in which workers draw on employment insurance for the one day they’re not working. In the private sector, many companies have asked employees to volunteer for reduced workweeks in exchange for less pay.
These recession-time work-sharing programs, however, are typically temporary measures, and the major Thank God It’s Thursday experiments in the U.S. are largely happening on a trial basis. Despite the benefits—both economic and environmental—there are lingering doubts about the long-term viability of these programs. The trouble, say critics, is that a four-day workweek isn’t actually very flexible, especially in a time when more and more families have two working parents. (On those four extra-long days at the office, someone, after all, has to pick up the kids from daycare.) When the programs are optional, like Oakland’s, there are plenty of logistical minefields as well, like making sure offices are adequately staffed, says Scarlet. For mandatory programs, like Utah’s, there’s the obvious problem of having government services closed on what can be one of the busiest days of the week.
For now, all eyes are on Utah, which will decide in coming weeks whether to continue with its ambitious program. So far, the evidence suggests it’s been a big success. Along with the employee satisfaction levels and cost savings, complaints from the public about closed government offices have been so few (less than 10 a week) that the state shut down a complaint line it had set up, says Herring. “For all those who said there were concerns, a bigger group indicated [they liked] the trade-offs,” he says.
At the very least, employees on a four-day week should enjoy it while they can. There’s always the alternative, as workers at the Canadian company CGI discovered last month. According to a memo obtained by the Canadian Press, it’s asking some employees to work an extra 2½ hours a week to increase its competitiveness—for no extra pay.