Q&A: The 32-hour workweek has a new champion in Congress

The spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Rome
REUTERS/Yara Nardi
  • Rep. Mark Takano says the pandemic "created an opening for people to rethink the current workweek"
  • Bill would start overtime benefits after 32 hours

(Reuters) - The 40-hour workweek has been a cornerstone of the U.S. economy since it was established by New Deal era legislation. But an increasing number of foreign countries and companies including Kickstarter PBC, Microsoft Corp and Unilever Plc are experimenting with a four-day, 32-hour week, and a new bill in Congress proposes to make it the norm.

Congressman Mark Takano, a California Democrat sponsoring the bill introduced in late July, told Reuters that many workers are burned out and reevaluating their priorities because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Coupled with new flexible work arrangements and increased leverage for workers amid an unprecedented demand for labor, it's the right time for stakeholders to begin discussing how a shorter work week would look, he said.

Takano's bill would amend the Fair Labor Standards Act to require overtime pay for non-exempt workers after they work 32 hours in a week, instead of the current 40-hour threshold. He said that under the bill, many hourly workers would end up working the same amount of hours while earning more for their labor.

Questions and answers have been edited for clarity and brevity.

REUTERS: How did you come to introduce this bill, and did the pandemic influence your position on this issue?

TAKANO: This topic didn't come out of thin air, and was already being discussed widely throughout the workforce. I had contemplated introducing the bill earlier this year. But in the more intense phase of the pandemic, with people still out of work in big numbers, it would have seemed off topic and tone deaf to drop this idea.

But just in the past month or so, I began to notice intense interest in the topic and I told my team, let's introduce it. This is not an insincere, cavalier thing we've done. It is a sense on my part that wide swaths of the American workforce are worn out and tired, and the pandemic has made them be more real about their lives after seeing someone die or be at risk of dying. People are seeing that time is just as important as money. I think we're seeing a global cataclysmic event that has created an opening for people to rethink the current work week.

REUTERS: There has been a lot of talk about how the pandemic has given workers more leverage to negotiate flexible working conditions.

TAKANO: Yeah, I think the timing of the bill is important. Anecdotally, I'm hearing about employers who are negotiating with employees just out of college or graduate school about whether or not they're going to be able to work from home. That would've been unthinkable before the pandemic. And I think in reality, that's more like a four-day work week. Work from home is kind of a euphemism for the four-day work week.

REUTERS: Many hourly workers are already struggling to make ends meet. How would you respond to someone who says that these workers will fall even further behind if their hours are cut?

TAKANO: I think that's way off base. We're facing a worker shortage, especially in the hourly space, because workers are interested in better working conditions. Nothing in my bill prevents an employee from working more than 32 hours a week, or more than 40. It's just that overtime begins sooner. And there's certainly no requirement that employers cut wages, and I don't think they will. Employers won't like it, but I think they'll be able to sustain a 10% pay increase for most of their employees.

REUTERS: Is a shorter work week more practical in certain industries compared to others? Is it easier to do this, for example, in white-collar office jobs than in the service sector?

TAKANO: I do think it is easier in certain industries like tech or healthcare, those sectors where workers are exempt from wage-and-hour laws because they are salaried and earn high salaries. That is where I see the conversation being the most serious and intense. But it is important for us to be having concurrent conversations about what this means for hourly workers, and that's a big motivation behind my bill. There is a social justice aspect to it and we need to be thinking about how this could work out in the non-exempt spaces.

REUTERS: Have you heard of any states where this is being discussed?

TAKANO: None that I know of, but I predict that as state legislators see this issue gaining steam we will see legislation introduced, and it will probably be more successful at the state and local level before we build the political will to do it in the U.S. Congress. (For) certain folks who like to think of themselves as populists, we will see how populist they really are.

Read more:

Four beats five as pandemic prompts shorter working week trials

Unilever to try out four-day working week in New Zealand

Burnout, stress lead more companies to try a four-day work week

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Dan Wiessner (@danwiessner) reports on labor and employment and immigration law, including litigation and policy making. He can be reached at daniel.wiessner@thomsonreuters.com.