Could the Thirty-Two Hour Workweek Become the New Normal?

April 14, 2022

A new California bill seeks to make a 32 hour work week the standard for companies of 500 or more employees. Will other states follow?

a planner sits on a table with the words "this week" at the top. A pen sits on top of the planner and it is surrounded by various knick knacks including a camera, necklace and bracelet

The internet has been buzzing with news of California’s proposed 32 hour workweek bill. Currently it is in early stages but there is much debate, on both sides of the aisle, about this bill and the potential effects of such a law being enacted.

40 hours has been the traditional length of the American work week since the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938. In a fascinating NPR interview, historian Benjamin Hunnicutt discusses the evolution of our working week as a species. He details how our ancestors went from working as much as needed to survive (which is estimated to be less than 40 hours per week), to being put through grueling hours (70+ per week) and conditions, during the Industrial Revolution, that led to strikes and protests. Eventually these responses would result in a 10 hour work day, but even that couldn’t pacify the people. Hunnicutt goes on to say, “It took the Great Depression to make 40 hours the norm. Government saw a shorter workweek as a way to fight the massive unemployment crisis by spreading the remaining labor out over more people. That led to a series of laws that eventually enshrined 40 hours as America’s workweek in 1940.”

So what are the details of this proposed bill?

a gavel with some important look books behind it

State assembly members in California propose that companies with 500 or more employees be required to define the standard workweek as 32 hours instead of 40. The document states, “This bill would instead require that work in excess of 32 hours in a workweek be compensated at the rate of no less than 1 1/2 times the employee’s regular rate of pay. The bill would require the compensation rate of pay at 32 hours to reflect the previous compensation rate of pay at 40 hours and would prohibit an employer from reducing an employee’s regular rate of pay as a result of this reduced hourly workweek requirement.”

Why now?

Group of employees laughs together while working around a table

So why are California lawmakers pushing for this change after more than 80 years of a system that we are all used to? Lawmakers feel that shortening the work week will uplift the voices of employees in the midst of all the hardship brought about by the pandemic. Many people believe that it could help with employee morale, therefore positively effecting hiring and retention. It is also believed that this change will help create new jobs. Many companies and countries, have experimented with the idea of a 32 hour work week. In August of 2021, a nonprofit company, called Healthwise, decided to implement a trial of the 32 hour workweek for their employees. According to economist, Julie Schor, who consulted Healthwise in this process, workers were “dramatically happier” and no longer “quitting in droves”. This particular plan involved paying employees for a 5 day work week but only having them clock in for 4 of those days.

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What are the potential benefits and drawbacks of this change?

woman has her head leaning against her hand with a somber expression. There is a cup of tea in front of her on the table.

By now, we know that being overworked and overstressed leads to an overall decline in both mental and physical wellbeing. In a time when so many are burned out, I am sure the idea of only working 32 hours has many people feeling like they can see a light at the end of the tunnel. After all, making the same pay for less hours sounds like a dream come true. But critics of the bill certainly have many valid thoughts as well. 

There are many who wonder if companies would be able to sustain the employee costs of increasing hourly rates. Imagine that a company discovers that it’s employees are highly productive and can get the same amount of work done in less time than previously thought. The work week is then reduced to 32 hours and overtime is not allowed. If a company were paying an employee $20 an hour, they would then have to provide $25 an hour to make sure that the employee does not earn less than before the hour cut. Conversely, imagine that the company discovers it needs it’s employees to work more than 32 hours a week to maintain productivity. Will they be able to afford the time and a half for everything over 32 hours? Or perhaps they will simply hire more employees and won’t allow current employees the opportunity to even use the overtime. Many in the workforce choose to work overtime to help make ends meet or to reach goals they have for themselves. Companies may be incentivized not to allow this to happen if overtime becomes even more costly than before.

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Another valid question that has arisen is about benefits. The bill does not specifically address anything about this. Nor does it use the terms “full-time” and “part-time”, instead opting for the descriptor “standard workweek”. Will a 32 hour week be considered full-time, allowing employees to still receive the benefits that 40 hour employees are used to receiving? Or will this not be addressed by the law, allowing businesses to interpret this as they will?

man throws food up to a flock of birds flying through the sky in front of a beautiful mountain range

If done right, I think that this idea has the potential to create something really revolutionary. There are so many types of companies that could benefit from the increased productivity and morale that would come along with offering their employees a shorter workweek with the same pay as their longer workweek. And obviously the benefits for employees’ work-life balance and overall well-being could be profound. But as we explore this option further, it will be extremely important that we do not inadvertently leave the average American worker even worse off than they were before because they are unable to receive benefits or work the overtime that they need. It will be interesting to watch as California lawmakers pioneer this idea for their state, and it will be even more interesting to see which states follow their lead. What would you do with your free time if you had 8 less hours of work per week?

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