This invoice may make the four-day workweek a actuality

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The four-day workweek movement is on the rise.

Dozens of UK companies have just completed the biggest pilot scheme yet, with more than 90 per cent of firms saying they would not go back to working five days a week. States and localities across the United States are considering ways to encourage more employers to try it.

And last week, Rep. Mark Takano (D-Calif.) again introduced legislation in the House of Representatives that would make the 32-hour workweek a national standard and lower the threshold that triggers overtime pay for most workers.

The previous iteration of the bill failed to see a committee hearing last year and could have a rough road to ground time in a Republican-controlled House. But Takano is excited about his potential to help American workers. The bill was approved by 4 Day Week Global, the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO), the Service Employees International Union and the United Food and Commercial Workers Union.

Four-day weeks and freedom of movement: companies are (again) rewriting the future of work

“Workers across the country are collectively rethinking their relationship to work — and our laws must follow suit,” Takano said in a statement introducing the bill. “We have an opportunity to use common sense to make changes to labor standards handed down from another era.”

Takano spoke to the Washington Post about the push for workweek reform and why it matters. Here are five questions asked and their answers, slightly edited.

Q: Where did the motivation for this law come from?

A: My staff and I had been talking about introducing legislation in 2020 or 2021, but I postponed introducing the bill because there was a lot of distraction due to Covid. I just felt that the country was concerned about what was going on with adjusting to the reality of the pandemic and I wanted to make sure I introduced the law at an appropriate time.

During the pandemic, the United States saw over a million of our countrymen and women die. We became more aware of the finiteness that we all have and we saw a great deal of resignation, especially among service workers in the hospitality industry. People started to think seriously about what they really wanted to do in life and people had more flexibility in their jobs. People like it and still want it.

Q: Is this the right time to reconsider the work week?

The post-pandemic moment is still a moment of openness to change, and until now we haven’t really considered that kind of change seriously.

But the four-day week is something that was introduced before: [former president] Richard M. Nixon, as a vice presidential candidate, even said he thought it was inevitable. And that’s two decades after the 40-hour week was enshrined in law.

What I find is that there is a constant and sustained interest in this reform. It will not go away. When I have traveled to other advanced economies and workers, this worker issue of more flexibility and better work-life balance is a trend happening in other countries, not just the United States. It will take this collective reform among advanced economies to make this a reality.

Q: What are the benefits of a shorter work week?

A: We’ve undergone tremendous technological change over the past few decades that has produced more productive workers, but that productivity hasn’t translated into better working conditions or hours in terms of time people have to themselves.

As a society, we can definitely make these decisions to change that work-life balance and improve that work-life balance so that health and happiness can be increased without impacting our productivity.

Q: What are the obstacles to achieving the 32-hour week?

A: Our biggest obstacle will be, “How do we make sure we move to fewer hours but not less compensation?” How is that supposed to work?”

I think it’s very good to say if you’re a programmer working for a tech company that’s into AI or whatever – it’s an intellectual pursuit. I think people can understand that increasing the number of hours you work doesn’t necessarily increase your output. You can only rack your brains for so long, and you might be open to the possibility that more time to yourself can equate to someone just as productive.

What’s less obvious is that if you have a production line, you’ll probably need to increase the number of employees you have if you don’t want to pay overtime. How is it that we find a wage or compensation balance that allows 32 hours of work to equal the 40 hours once worked?

How we do this shift in terms of hourly workers is challenging, but I believe it can be done. I believe there are ways to achieve this. A key factor is – in addition to working to adjust overtime regulations, which my bill is doing – we also need to look at the ability of workers to unionize to negotiate higher wages.

This reform needs to coincide with other types of reforms in order for us to move compensation in the right direction.

Q: Would this expand access to flexible work?

A: The 32-hour week debate is already happening in certain areas of the economy. It takes place in the technology field. California’s San Francisco Bay Area is seeing waves of interest. Panasonic moved to a 32-hour work week. Kickstarter is one company that has been researching this, and one of its executives is a cheerleader for this whole movement.

What we need to examine is how this can become the norm in the diverse workforces across America. Well of course the ability to be that flexible isn’t going to be the same across industries if you’re someone who needs to show up and press the clock and needs to be a carpenter or plumber. Those are the things we need to address in a public debate, and my legislation will definitely do that.

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