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Is the future of work a four-day workweek?

March 23, 2023
By: Laura Lacy Graham

The idea of changing the 40 hour workweek standard has been floated for decades, and more frequently discussed in recent years as companies confront pandemic-related stress, burnout and the “Great Resignation.” But, even as some smaller U.S. companies (mostly in tech) have moved toward offering a shorter workweek, the idea has not become mainstream, despite some states’ best efforts.

A shorter work week for the nation has been floated since 1956, when during a reelection campaign stop, then-Vice President Richard M. Nixon predicted that a four-day workweek was in the “not too distant future,” as part of the GOP administration’s economic policies. Earlier this month, California Congressman Mark Takano reintroduced the Thirty-Two Hour Workweek Act. Similar to legislation he co-sponsored with Reps. Pramila Jayapal (D-WA) and Jan Schakowsky (D-IL) in 2021, it would amend the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) to change the national standard workweek to 32 hours. (The current 40-hour week dates back to a 1940 amendment to the Fair Labor Standards Act. The amendment, which revised the standard from 44 hours, is the last time the workweek has been legislatively adjusted in the United States.)

Both pandemic and post-pandemic workforce changes have caused policymakers, employers and employees to re-evaluate and re-think what the future of work looks like, including modifications to the number of hours that make-up the workweek.

A recent collaboration between Boston College and the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom examined the impact of a reduced work week on an organization’s performance and the employee’s well-being. The pilot study (considered the largest-ever trial of a four-day/32 hour workweek) involved more than 60 UK businesses with approximately 3,000 workers who voluntarily adopted a truncated work schedule from June to December 2022, and found upon conclusion that 91% of the participating companies intended to continue with the abridged workweek, 4% said they were leaning towards continuing the practice, and 4% indicated that they would not continue.

This “4 Day Week” study presents an evolution in thought from the current traditional workweek to a shorter one, and re-visits the 1956 belief that a four-day week is “the future” of businesses.

It is a belief that some states, like California and Washington, also share, but have failed to implement. In 2020, a bill  (SB 6516) introduced in Washington state sponsored by state Sen. Joe Nguyen, a Democrat from Seattle, sought to make a 32-hour workweek the norm. It also would have required employers to pay time-and-a-half for any hours worked over that threshold.

Two years later, California state assembly member Cristina Garcia (D-Bell Gardens) also introduced a measure (Assembly Bill [AB] 2932) that would have directed California employers with more than 500 workers to shorten the mandatory workweek from 40 hours to 32; it also would have required employers to pay time-and-a-half to those who work in excess of 32 hours without curtailing the pay rate. It was estimated the measure would impact about 2,600 businesses and more than 3.6 million workers.  

Even as both of those measures have stalled, last month Maryland lawmakers took up the cause, and proposed measures that would establish a pilot program offering incentives to companies to cut the workweek from 40 to 32 hours — without reducing salaries. Under the bills (House Bill [HB] 181 and Senate Bill [SB] 197), the Maryland Department of Labor (DoL) would administer the yet to be designated program, which would allow the companies that implemented a shortened workweek, to claim a credit against their state income tax for an amount to be determined by the DoL. The five-year program would be available to both private and public employers with 30 or more employees, and, depending on its success, would either be renewed or sunset accordingly.

But, earlier this month, the sponsoring lawmakers withdrew the measures, citing in part some lawmakers’ concerns with the costs of the five-year program, but mainly blamed the engrained attitudes concerning the traditional 40-hour work week — thereby ending what would have made Maryland the first state in the nation to implement a new standard workweek.

While state efforts at amending the traditional workweek have stalled, some city governments in Connecticut and Texas have had better successes. The cities of Ellington and Vernon (in Connecticut) and Keller (in the Dallas-Fort Worth area) are implementing more limited or localized four-day workweek programs to attract and retain government employees in an on-going post-pandemic effort at addressing work/life balances, a tighter labor market, and, especially, in the reimagining of work —fully realizing the vision offered on a campaign trail 67 years ago.

Marylandlegislation, workforce, states, congress