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Progressive Lawmakers Signal Support for Four-Day Workweek Proposal

The 40-hour week has been the standard for nearly 90 years — but labor advocates say it’s time for a change.

Rep. Pramila Jayapal speaks during an interview as House Democrats work on infrastructure and spending bills on Capitol Hill on November 4, 2021, in Washington, D.C.

As the movement for a shorter workweek gains steam across the country, the Congressional Progressive Caucus (CPC) has endorsed a House bill that would establish a 32-hour workweek as the nationwide standard for full-time work.

The proposal was filed earlier this year by caucus member Rep. Mark Takano (D-California) and would shorten the standard workweek by lowering the threshold for overtime compensation from 40 hours to 32 hours. With standard eight-hour workdays, this would translate to a four-day workweek.

Though the proposal stands little chance of passing Congress, the caucus’s support is a signal that progressives lawmakers are listening to the demands of the labor movement, which has fought to shorten the workweek for centuries and often succeeded. The CPC has nearly 100 members, including 96 House members and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont).

Takano said he was pleased that the caucus endorsed his bill, adding that the measure would lead to an “improved quality of life for workers.”

“After a nearly two-year-long pandemic that forced millions of people to explore remote work options, it’s safe to say that we can’t – and shouldn’t – simply go back to normal, because normal wasn’t working,” Takano said. “People were spending more time at work, less time with loved ones, their health and well-being was worsening, and all the while, their pay has remained stagnant.”

CPC chair Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Washington) praised the bill, similarly highlighting stagnant wages. “It is past time that we put people and communities over corporations and their profits — finally prioritizing the health, wellbeing, and basic human dignity of the working class rather than their employers’ bottom line,” she said.

The 40-hour workweek was won by the labor movement in the early 20th century as a response to grueling working conditions during the Industrial Revolution. By 1890, workers were routinely working through exploitative conditions and 100-hour weeks where they were given either one day off or none at all. Workers in trade unions blazed a path for the 40-hour workweek, which was implemented by the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 and which remains the standard to this day.

Nearly 90 years later, labor advocates say that the five-day, 40-hour workweek has become outdated. Not only can modern labor practices and automation accelerate work, pilot programs in other countries have found that shorter workweeks actually increase productivity.

While the 4-day workweek proposal wouldn’t apply to gig workers and workers who are exempt from overtime, the proposal could dramatically change work culture in the U.S. and spark movements among exempt workers to demand similar change within their own workplaces. A shorter workweek could also free up hours for organizing coworkers for collective bargaining and improving other working conditions.

Research has shown that on average, American workers spend more time at work than workers in comparable countries. Analyzing data from 2019, the People’s Policy Project found that not only are American workers squeezed harder than those in other countries, but also that overworking is inefficient, as Americans work more hours than workers in countries with a comparable Gross Domestic Product. This is partially due to a work culture and political system that values capitalistic output and supposed productivity over everything else — almost entirely at the expense of the working class.

Research has demonstrated the enormous physical and mental toll of overworking; in May, a study found that nearly 750,000 people around the world die each year due to heart disease and strokes brought on by long working hours, making overworking and burnout a matter of life and death. Of course, conservative lawmakers have shown no interest in resolving these issues, instead glorifying measures like work requirements for people to access resources they need to survive.

While a four-day workweek wouldn’t solve widespread issues of exploitation, labor advocates say it’s a necessary step toward a healthier work culture in the U.S. Work often extends far beyond the time that someone is actually on the clock, advocates have pointed out — workplaces stressors often creep into people’s personal lives, making days off little more than time to recuperate before clocking in again.

“The benefits of a four-day workweek to us as individuals and our work culture are clear: better physical and mental health, fewer burnt-out employees, more equitable workplace outcomes, and so on,” Austin Cole, board member at 4 Day Week US, wrote for Truthout. “But to me, a reduction of working hours for the same pay isn’t about those benefits — it’s fundamentally about justice.”

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