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We Know We Work Too Much. Now How Do We Stop It?

Image via Shutterstock

We know by now that Americans are seriously overworked—often putting in more than 65 hours at work each week. And too many of us aren’t taking any vacation time. Most aren’t even able to get that time off, let alone sick leave or maternity and paternity leave.

So what can we do about it?

Policy solutions start with paid leave—plans that most developed countries wouldn’t consider radical. The United States, Oman, and Papua New Guinea are the only countries out of 185 that don’t guarantee some form of paid maternity leave, and 78 of those countries also offer paid paternity leave. But three states—California (which Eric Garcia wrote about this week), New Jersey, and Rhode Island—have instituted paid family leave programs, and they’ve shown that they can be implemented without costs or headaches for businesses. In California and New Jersey, businesses report that they haven’t been inconvenienced by the systems, and some have actually seen benefits. American workers also aren’t guaranteed a paid day off if they or their family members get sick, unlike in 22 developed peers. Guaranteeing these days could also happen without hurting businesses or the economy. In Connecticut, San Francisco, Seattle, and Washington, D.C.—places that have instituted such leave—employers report few, if any, costs, plus increases in productivity, reductions in turnover, and normal growth 

The United States is also an outlier among developed countries in not mandating that workers get some paid vacation and holiday time. The other 20 richest countries require at least ten vacation days, as in Canada and Japan. Thirteen of them also require a certain number of paid holidays. Taking time off doesn’t just boost productivity, but also economic growth. If American workers who get paid vacations actually took all of their days—we leave about three days on the table on average—and if just some of them traveled, it would add $227 billion to the economy.

Beyond leave, there are a handful of other public policies that could curb overwork, starting with the Affordable Care Act. “We didn’t just end up with longer workweeks and longer work hours,” said Dean Baker, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, in an interview. "Health care costs, and before that pensions, have been a huge factor that discouraged employers from hiring more workers and instead having people work more hours." That’s because up until recently, employers paid full health care premiums even if employees worked part time or shorter hours—it wasn’t prorated. "That separates us from everyone, and with health care costs being much more expensive than anywhere else, it made it a much bigger deal,” he added.

Now the Affordable Care Act has the potential to break that ironclad link between jobs and health care. For people who might prefer to work part time but previously couldn’t afford private insurance costs, they can go to the exchanges. For employers, they may be able to hire more part-time workers and not have to shoulder the cost of providing insurance to additional staff.

The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) could also do its part. In 1938 it established that if a worker puts in more than 40 hours a week, she has to be paid time and a half for the extra hours. But the exceptions have become so vast that the law applies to a shrinking number of people. Those who can be classified as executives, administrators, or professionals can be denied overtime pay—loopholes that have been stretched ever wider thanks in part to action from President George W. Bush at the behest of business interests. The FLSA’s salary threshold also hasn’t been significantly updated since 1975 and stands at $23,660, meaning anyone who makes less won’t get overtime. To put it simply, a lot of us who should get paid more for putting in a 40-plus hour workweek aren’t.

In March, President Obama announced an executive order to update the rules, which will readjust the classification exemptions as well as the salary threshold—although it’s not clear by how much as it is still in public comment mode. But if the limit were raised to $50,440 a year, as proposed by the Economic Policy Institute, about ten million people would be brought into overtime protection. That wouldn’t just mean extra pay in their pockets for working more hours. It could also make employers think harder about asking people to stay over 40 hours, thus bringing back the nine-to-five world we long said good-bye to.

Another shift could come from a greater adoption of work-sharing programs, which are in place in 23 states and Washington, D.C. They allow employers to reduce their workers’ hours instead of laying them off when things get tight. So instead of cutting the workforce by 20 percent, an employer can shave hours by 20 percent and keep everyone on. Workers then get prorated unemployment benefits for the hours they don’t work. They may still lose some income, but it’s better than losing a job. “If you had more employers taking advantage of that,” Baker said, “it might be the case that a lot of people would say this is a good arrangement. A lot of employees might keep a four-day workweek.” Included in the payroll tax cut Obama signed into law in February 2012 was money for states to either update their existing work-sharing programs or to create new ones. Work-sharing also enjoys bipartisan support, as Baker noted that he has worked with Kevin Hassett, the director of economic policy studies at AEI, to push lawmakers to enact more of these programs.

We could also, of course, simply pass laws that limit the workweek, although it’s obviously a long shot in the current political climate. Yet a city in Sweden is limiting federal employees’ hours to just six each workday in the hopes of boosting productivity. And in the European Union, collective bargaining has brought about countrywide limits on the workweek, with an average limit of about 38 hours as of 2012. They also all have statutory rules limiting the workweek to no more than 48 hours, with some capping it at 40. It doesn’t mean people are sent to jail for putting in 49 hours, and there are plenty of ways they can work more under the rules. Still, there is a threshold that keeps the workweek in check.

These policy solutions might not be in such dire need of attention if American workers had more power to push for shorter workweeks themselves. But their power is on the decline. Just 11 percent of the private sector workforce belongs to a union. Yet it is unions whom we can thank for the 40-hour workweek supposedly enshrined in the FLSA, as well as our weekends. In the late 1800s before they came to power, the average workweek was 61 hours. Workers today don’t have a lot of options if they want to work less, but a unionized group would be able to push employers to change their practices.

Without anything to stop it, though, the American workweek looks ready to keep expanding at a cost to us all.

Images via Shutterstock