Employers Welcome Four Day Work Week
By: Nick Deonas
Employers today are looking for ways to increase productivity, employee morale and save on energy at the same time. The four day work week is not a new concept; it seems we hear about it around recession time. This is the latest that I have seen. High gas prices and a slack economy are sparking new notions about how and where people work. Few shifts seem more radical, however, than the rise of the four-day work week.
Chrysler LLC is the latest to propose workers shift to four 10-hour days. The state of Utah adopted it earlier this month, and so have hundreds of U.S. cities. Closer to home, officials in Nova Scotia and the city of Hamilton are interested in the idea, and some industrial plants have quietly made the change. It’s an idea that rolls around whenever the economy softens. A decade ago, labour groups were promoting shorter work weeks, hoping it would spur more hiring. It didn’t catch on.
This time around, employers are adopting it to cut energy costs while giving employees an extra day off.
“We expect to see operational efficiencies that will lead to reduced costs,” said Chrysler spokesman Ed Saenz. “We also think that employees will appreciate four days of travel to work, rather than five.” Chrysler is talking with the United Auto Workers to see if the idea is palatable. If approved, more than 10,000 Chrysler plant workers could start a four-day work week this fall. The proposal focuses on several American plants, though if successful, Chrysler would consider adopting it at the company’s Brampton, Ont., plant, Mr. Saenz said.
The advantage for the company is mainly reduced energy costs – the ability to shut down heavy machinery and equipment for three full days. Chrysler doesn’t expect the move would hurt productivity.
Utah, meantime, is the first U.S. state to make the move. It hopes to save $3-million (U.S.) a year in costs to heat, cool and light the state’s 1,000 buildings. Its one-year test, involving about 17,000 workers who have moved to a 7 a.m. to 6 p.m., Monday to Thursday shift, began Aug. 4.
And its phone lines have been flooded. Jeff Herring, the state’s executive director of human resources, has fielded about 300 calls from U.S. counties, cities and states, as well as Nova Scotia, British Columbia, Japan and Sweden. “The biggest impetus was energy costs – trying to be more energy-efficient, and the high cost of gas,” he said when reached Friday, on his way to an afternoon matinee with his son. “But it readily became apparent that it really isn’t just a crisis-management initiative. I think this is a long-term strategy for doing business.” He said there have been unexpected benefits, such as longer hours to serve the public and higher employee morale, and that the move has spurred improvements to its online services and telecommuting options.
About one-sixth of U.S. cities with populations of more than 25,000 now offer employees a shortened week, estimates Utah professor Rex Facer, who has studied the issue for several years. His research has shown the move generally boosts morale and productivity. It also reduces utility and overtime costs, while cutting absenteeism and staff turnover. There are barriers, however. Ten-hour days can be gruelling for older workers. Child-care facilities aren’t geared for longer work hours, nor is public transit, cautions Nora Spinks, president of Work-Life Harmony Enterprises. She believes working four days should be voluntary, not mandatory.
Labour unions, however, are embracing the move. In the port of Halifax, members of the International Longshoremen’s Association Local 1825 have moved to work weeks of four eight-hour days – and taken a salary cut – amid slower shipping activity. “It’s preferable to layoffs,” said president Mick Franks. In Ontario’s manufacturing heartland, factory workers negotiated a new contract last month with Cambridge-based Babcock & Wilcox Canada that entails four 10-hour days.
“It’s more time with your kids,” said David Smith, president of the United Steelworkers Local 2859. It’s also an extra day “out of a manufacturing plant, walking on cement, being around that environment, so [it’s] a much healthier choice.”
Whether a four-day week becomes the new norm is debatable. It could well be the idea fades once the economy revives and companies need to boost capacity, said Jayson Myers, economist and president of Canadian Manufacturers & Exporters. “These are probably temporary measures to offset the problems in the marketplace right now.”