Despite pandemic flexibility, working 5 days, 40 hours still the reality for many

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How hard? A recent survey shows Americans — at least before COVID-19 — were working an average of almost 1,800 hours per year and leaving around half of their paid time off unused.

According to the personal-finance website WalletHub:

— Alaska has the longest hours worked per week, 42, which is 14 percent longer than in Utah, the state with the shortest at 37.

— New York has the longest average commute time, 34 minutes, which is two times longer than in South Dakota, the state with the shortest at 17 minutes.

— Mississippi has the highest share of workers leaving vacation time unused, 34.70 percent, which is 1.6 times higher than in Ohio, the state with the lowest at 21.9 percent.

(Massachusetts, by the way, ranks as only the 41st hardest working state in this reckoning.)

Americans work “137 more hours per year than Japanese workers, 260 more hours per year than British workers, and 499 more hours per year than French workers,” according to the International Labor Organization, an agency of the United Nations.

Whew! No wonder we need a whole three-day weekend on Labor Day.

Not every economy is so focused on hours on the clock. Germany — not exactly known as a nation of slackers — is the latest industrialized state to consider experimenting with a four-day, 32-hour work week (without a reduction in pay) as the new standard. It’s a change being pushed by that nation’s powerful labor unions as a way of saving jobs in the face of automation as well as giving workers more leisure.

Meanwhile, Americans are still struggling with meeting the 40-hour week goal, a standard that goes back to the New Deal.

“The law hasn’t changed,” said John Miller, an economics professor at Wheaton College in Norton. But “it depends on how it’s defined and enforced.” He notes that over the decades enforcement has lagged and wages have stagnated. “People are desperate to make enough to keep up. It’s damn hard to make it a reality.”

Agitation for a 40-hour week and an eight-hour day goes back almost to the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution in England that changed how people worked and when 12-hour days and longer for employees in those “dark, satanic mills” were the norm, according to early 19th century poet William Blake.

It was Robert Owen, a Scottish mill owner, who came up with the idea of an eight-hour day in the early years of the 19th century. “Eight hours’ Labour, Eight Hours’ Recreation, Eight Hours’ Rest,” was his slogan. (Britain indeed made the 10-hour day law — for child laborers — in the 1840s.)

American labor movements would press for a 40-hour week, too. (President Ulysses S. Grant established a 40-hour week for federal workers.) But it would be a century after Owen’s campaign before the idea took hold in the private sector in the United States and it first became a reality — not via government fiat or union demands — but in an act of economic self-interest at Ford Motor Co. in Detroit, then one of the largest employers in America.

In the 1930s, Ford would become notorious for its violent strikebreaking activities. But in 1914 Henry Ford’s doubling of (male) assembly line workers’ wages to a then-unheard-of $5 per hour and eventually his establishment of a 40-hour week were groundbreaking. All this was part of Ford’s paternalistic efforts — along with English classes for immigrant laborers — to ensure that his employees were clean, sober and good Americans, who could, by the way, afford to buy their own Model Ts and have the time off to drive them.

It was also profitable. Ford saw worker turnover drop, production increase and profit margins double — from $30 million to $60 million — in the space of two years. Other companies took note and followed suit, but not all.

It would not be until 1938, in the wake of the Great Depression, that one of the last major pieces of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal would make the 40-hour week the law of the land.

The Fair Labor Standards Act established an eventual maximum of 40 hours per week without overtime and included minimum wage requirements as well as overtime pay and restrictions on child labor.

Much of it was the brainchild of Frances Perkins, FDR’s secretary of labor and the first woman to hold a Cabinet post. As Miller, the Wheaton professor, notes, the Mount Holyoke graduate, longtime Worcester resident and consumer advocate had been an eyewitness to the catastrophic 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York’s Greenwich Village where 149 workers — mostly young immigrant women — died because exits from the factory were blocked. Perkins never forgot and blamed lax legislation for the disaster.

The Fair Labor Standards Act, Miller says, “was the culmination of the labor reforms of the New Deal.”

The problem, he says, has been oversight and enforcement of the 40-hour rule in U.S. industry. The number of inspectors at the Wages and Hours Division of the federal Department of Labor is simply not up to the task. “If we look at the ratio” of inspectors to the number of companies they have to monitor, “it would take 60 years to get to every one.”

“Wage theft,” as it’s known when an employer illegally withholds pay, such as overtime, that a worker has earned, has become a rallying cry for labor advocates, particularly in the garment industry.

In an article from 2016, David Weil, a Labor Department official, wrote that his agency conducted “77 investigations of randomly selected garment shops in Los Angeles in 2015 and 2016, and uncovered violations in 85 percent of them. We found more than $1.3 million in unpaid wages due to workers and also assessed employers more than $65,000 in penalties. Since the shops were randomly selected, these results reveal the high underlying rate of noncompliance in the industry that results from the low prices driving the system.”

Reevaluating structure

The coronavirus pandemic, and its subsequent shutdown of many businesses, has led companies across the economy to reevaluate how work is structured. Some firms discovered that employees who could work from home didn’t need to be chained to their cubicles from 9 to 5 to get things done. A study by Stanford University of 16,000 workers over nine months found that working from home increased productivity by 13%. Those employees also reported greater work satisfaction.

But, despite media buzz about the “new normal” and the supposed obsolescence of the 40-hour week, there seems to be no great rush in the real world to change what for many is the bedrock of their working lives.

In Massachusetts, a survey of employers and employees found less than half of workers who are currently remote were expected to return to the office any time soon.

The Massachusetts Competitive Partnership conducted the survey this spring among 110 companies with a total of 113,505 workers. Last December, the MACP estimated 61% of workers would return from remote work by September this year, and 81% by 2022. Now the estimate is that 62% of workers won’t return to the office until January.

That may not be as disruptive as it sounds. Younger workers generally may be seeking a more sustainable work/life balance.

According to a recent Gallup survey, among millennials who work remotely 54% have “thriving” well being, compared with 47% among those who work on-site. For context, the average among all U.S. adults is 48.8%, a 12-year low according to Gallup data. Millennials are also far more engaged when they work remotely: 41%, versus 29% among those who work on-site. And 74% of them don’t want to go back to the office five days a week.

Sensata Technologies, a global company, had hoped to transition employees, including many of the 700 people who work at its headquarters campus on Pleasant Street in Attleboro, from remote work by this week.

“We had given a soft launch date of back in the office right around Labor Day,” Alexia Taxiarchos, vice president of global corporate communications for one of the area’s largest employers, said in an email. “Working across time zones and only on Microsoft Teams has been taxing — and while we have been successful, there is no replacement for in-person collaboration and team building.”

And while the site remains open for those who want to come in, she says, the rise of the delta variant of COVID-19 has forced a change in company plans. Taxiarchos says, “we paused, and told employees that they didn’t need to come back until at least the beginning of 2022.”

She writes that Sensata puts a priority on safety and “we recognize that employees have other factors (beyond work) to consider. So we will respect employees’ choices as to work location — provided that we all get the work done and continue to best serve our customers.”

But, she adds, “we are not moving away from 40 hours” although, “we have always been flexible with hours (for non-manufacturing workers).”

“As a global company we work across many time zones, and our employees (engineers and professionals) need to collaborate and work with global customers, so we have teams on calls/meetings early in the morning or late at night. So flexibility is incredibly important, not only to serve our customers but also for our people to manage their own schedules to retain balance in lives.”

In a statement, Jeff Cote, CEO and president of Sensata said, “The prolonged pandemic is fraying and places a strain on teaming and culture. This is why we strongly believe that a hybrid model with some in-person collaboration is necessary to continue to drive culture and innovation. At the end of the day, it will always be about getting the work done, and done well.”

Jack Lank, president of the United Regional Chamber of Commerce, headquartered…

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