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Sanders proposed short work week: remote work implications

Sen Sanders Proposed Short Week Remote Work Implications

US Senator Sanders’ proposed work week reduction from 40 hours to 32 hours per week is nothing new.  In the US, the push by some for shorter work weeks happened back in 1940 when hours worked weekly was reduced from 44 hours per week to 40. What may be novel is the expectation that employers continue to pay nonexempt workers the same salary set at the 40 hours per week rate. Meaning that employee may work no more than four days in a workweek. And, work no more than 32 hours in such workweek while continuing to get paid for the same pay they would have received in a traditional 40-hour workweek setting.

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Temptations abound for shorter work week

Who isn’t tempted by the promise of a shorter work week? Even our most top ranked telecommuters, top notch high flyers working virtually can be motivated to consider such benefits.

At some time or another, we yearn for some balance in our lives. We are always seeking that perfect formula where we’re meeting the needs of our personal and professional lives in just the right amount.  We hope and pray that our legislative leaders and policy makers can craft a shuffle ready solution.

Remote work flexibility antithesis of mandated shorter week

Remote work featured prominently in the discussion of Senator Sander’s proposal. G. Roger King, Senior Labor and Employment Counsel, HR Policy Association, highlighted employee desire for greater work schedule flexibility.  He argued, “many employees today want to work remotely or in hybrid situations and set their own hours of employment,” however, he believed a strict 32-hour work week could be counterproductive. We agree. The flexibility of remote work offered to the employee benefits the employer too and is the antithesis of government- mandated shorter work weeks.

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Mandated shorter work weeks is a mirage

In hindsight, many felt that getting a remote job would be the ultimate solution. And we’ve almost achieved nirvana. But, the truth is, there’s not a magic formula provided by the federal government that can deliver the optimal work week schedule. In fact, it’s often better if you aren’t working by the clock and instead using a check list, marking each task box complete as you go along.  Government mandated shorter work week is just a mirage. Don’t take the bait.

As we all know, life can throw a curveball at you at any moment. One day, everything at home is going smoothly, and the next three kids have strep throat, the dog got out of the backyard, and you have a car repair problem. Other days, it’s either work is effortless and everything seems to be going great, followed by a day of you putting out fires where your remote team leader throws you a curveball, your website for your online business crashes, you’re having difficulty with a payment processor, and a customer or client is on your case about something.

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Bernie Sanders’ plan of a shorter work week won’t save you in these cases. If you were accepting of a shorter work week schedule, it might cause an unnecessary burden if you adhered to it rather than causally adjusted your attention and hours worked to where it was needed the most at that particular time.

Hidden implications of shorter work week for remote workers

What’s at play here? The purpose of this article is to explore the possible hidden implications for remote workers, tele-commuters, workers working from anywhere and working from home.  Let’s look at the data first.

Average hours worked per week: Top OECD Countries

Worldwide, workers generally clock in less hours worked per week than Americans. For instance, World Population Review  tallied these employee average hours worked per weeks by country based upon 2021 data*,

+Japan, 39 hours
+USA,  37 hours
+Canada, 36 hours
+France, 35 hours
+Germany, 34 hours
+UK,33 hours
+Australia, 32 hours

*Although the work hour statistics can vary in range based upon the different methodologies used by differing sources  such as the. International Labor Organization and Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), it doesn’t yet appear that Americans are grossly overworked in comparison to workers in other mature economies.

Average annual hours worked: Top OECD Countries

Still, let’s take a look at the average annual hours worked by employed workers in 2022 using OECD data:

+USA, 1811 hours annually
+Australia, 1707 hours annually
+Canada, 1686 hours annually
+Japan, 1607 hours annually
+UK, 1532 hours annually
+France, 1511 hours annually
+Germany, 1341 hours annually

The statistics above paint a picture whereby, US workers work more hours annually than many of their OECD country compadres. However, the data could be skewed based upon the way in which the data is compiled. For instance, the OECD statisticians considered the total number of hours worked over the year divided by the average number of people in employment. Part time and full time employed workers were included into their calculations.  What does this mean?

Drop in labor force participation: A critical factor in increased hours

The precipitous drop in labor force participation is a critical factor inflating the average number of weekly hours worked. The US Federal Reserve  estimates work force participation has been decreasing in the US. Up to a 66% decrease in labor force participation occurred  since the advent of the 2019 Covid crisis.  With fewer people gainfully employed (the denominator below the horizontal line of the fraction), the total number of hours worked is divided by fewer people. In turn, the total average number of hours worked for each employed individual will increase. Lower labor force participation, according to the Federal Reserve is largely attributed to an aging population and other population compositions.

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Reasons for drop in labor force participation

The bad news doesn’t end there, the Federal Reserve projects work force participation will drop another 1 percentage point in the next ten years. Other reasons according to the Brookings Institute for the decline in labor force participation are:

+Cyclical economic contraction
+Young adult disillusionment in obtaining gainful employment
+Promise of higher education as a means of upward mobility
+Decline in ‘middle-skill’ jobs
+Greater competition for ‘low-skill’ jobs
+Crowding out effect from older workers who continue to work rather than retire

Features of longer and shorter worker work weeks

We’ve provided a general overview of the weekly and annual hours worked against the backdrop of a contracting economy and wonder why Senator Sanders would propose a shorter work week. Here’s what comes to mind. Countries with longer work weeks, theorizes World Population Review have:

+Less worker rights and protections
+Reduced fringe benefits

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On the other hand, says World Population Review, countries known for shorter employee work weeks tend to offer the following:

+Greater overtime compensation
+More worker friendly regulations
+Most favorable family and parental leave laws

Mandated shorter work week and implications for remote workers

Where does that leave the typical worker and telecommuters working virtually? A one sided approach to a reduction of workweek hours can leave workers vulnerable to:

+Less hours paid weekly (for hourly workers and  remote working independent service contractors who bill clients weekly)
+Reduction in paid leave and sick leave earned/banked as a percentage of total hours worked

Mandated shorter work week and implications for employers

With government mandated reductions in employee work weeks, employers, small businesses and entrepreneurs may become even more vulnerable than their workers. For instance, instituting a shorter work week doesn’t make the work that needs to be done disappear. Productivity goals still need to be met.

The HR Policy Association gave testimony to the senate showing:

+Policy changes to FLSA (Wages and Fair Labor Standards Act) can give rise to the already 5,532 court filings and litigations over interpretations
+Risk of adding to the worker shortage problem. Construction, home health care, hospitals and clinics would need to drastically increase the number of positions needed to be filled should the 40 hour work week be reduced to 32
+Disruptions in worker scheduling and business operations. Unions would need to re-negotiate contracts and employers would need to determine whether to pay overtime and/or high additional workers to continue services during the 8 hour gap

Macroeconomic risk and mandated shorter work week

In addition to the potential for negative impact upon individual workers and employers alike, there is likelihood of a negative impact on the macroeconomy. The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) shared a story from Liberty Vittert, professor at Washington University, Olin Business School. Vittert provided evidence from a Japanese study from 1988 to 1996 demonstrating that “economic output fell by 20%” when Japan reduced its workweek to 30 hours from 46.

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