Dolly Parton might have to change the title of her iconic song to “9 to 3.”
The standard workweek is often considered to be 40 hours. That’s why, under federal law, heightened overtime pay of at least 1.5 times an employee’s usual hourly wage must be paid to most employees for their 41st hour and beyond that they work during a week. (“Most” because some categories of workers are exempt from the provisions.)
That length workweek has already been shortened in federal law once before. It was originally set at 44 hours in 1938 with the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), but then it was decreased to the current 40 hours in 1940. Could it be shortened again?
Pilot programs testing a shorter 32-hour workweek are increasingly being attempted in both foreign nations such as Spain and at famous companies such as Kickstarter. Advocates claim that this decreases stress (good for employees), decreases turnover (good for employers), and improves productivity because people are experiencing less fatigue and yawning on the job (good for both employers *and *employees).
What the bill does
The Thirty-Two Hour Workweek Act would reduce the federal definition of the standard workweek from 40 to 32 hours per week, by kicking in overtime pay under federal law at the 33rd hour rather than the 41st.
It would not actually *mandate *a 32-hour workweek.
The bill was introduced in the House on July 27 as H.R. 4728, by Rep. Mark Takano (D-CA41).
What supporters say
Supporters argue the legislation helps Americans increase their take-home pay while improving worker conditions — not to mention fewer commutes.
“At a time when the nature of work is rapidly changing, it’s incumbent upon us to explore all possible means of ensuring our modern business model prioritizes productivity, fair pay, and an improved quality of life for workers,” Rep. Takano said in a press release. “I am introducing this legislation to reduce the standard workweek to 32 hours because — now more than ever — people continue to work longer hours while their pay remains stagnant. We cannot continue to accept this as our reality.”
“After the COVID-19 pandemic left so many millions of Americans unemployed or underemployed, a shorter workweek will allow more people to participate in the labor market at better wages,” Rep. Takano continued. “This is a groundbreaking piece of legislation and I’m grateful to the organizations and colleagues that firmly stand behind it. I look forward to continuing the work on this issue so that people may experience the best possible working conditions — the working conditions they deserve.”
What opponents say
Opponents counter that such a proposal could inadvertently harm workers by cutting their hours, rather than raising their pay as intended.
Potential evidence for this can be seen in another recent law. The Affordable Care Act, commonly nicknamed Obamacare, required employers to provide health insurance for employees who worked 30 hours per week. After it went into effect, the percentage of employees who worked 31 to 34 hours per week — just over the threshold — declined, while the percentage who worked 25 to 29 hours per week — just under the threshold — increased.
Opponents also say the bill would only benefit a subset of Americans, and that subset would likely be the upper-class and upper-middle-class, despite the bill’s progressive sponsors’ claims that it would help the working class.
“In truth… a four-day workweek is the dream of a limited set: well-educated, highly-paid workers who manipulate symbols all day — not the nation’s workers as a collective whole,” Joe Pinsker wrote for The Atlantic. Pinsker then quotes University of Texas at Austin economics professor Dan Hamermesh as saying:
“It’s very easy for folks sitting back in their chairs to say, ‘Yes, you [should] be on a part-time schedule, or a four-day, 32-hour schedule,’ without thinking about the extent to which such folks want the income and are willing to put up with the hard hours. That’s what bothers me most about this discussion, frankly. It’s very much a bunch of well-to-do folks telling others how much they should work.”
Odds of passage
The bill has attracted four cosponsors, all Democrats. It awaits a potential vote in the House Education and Labor Committee.