U.S. employees spending more time on the job

September 23, 1990|By David R. Francis | David R. Francis,The Christian Science Monitor

Americans are working longer hours.

The average worker in the United States put in 95 more hours of work in 1987 than in 1979. That's the equivalent of almost 3 1/2 extra weeks on the job.

Why?

Lawrence Mishel, an economist with the Economic Policy Institute in Washington, says employees were mostly driven to pile up the hours by falling real wages in the 1980s.They have the same mortgages to pay, the same children to feed and clothe.

Though not necessarily disagreeing, Richard Freeman, a Harvard University economist, notes that polls show Americans generally like to work more rather than than less.

Whatever the case, the rise in work hours has reversed in the United States a long-term trend toward fewer hours.

Longer hours are the opposite of what has been happening in industrial Europe. In 1987, the manufacturing worker in Germany spent 1,642 hours on the job, in France 1,645 hours and in the United States, 1,949 hours. The Japanese, famed as workaholics, topped all these countries by putting in 2,168 hours on average.

Europeans also get more vacation than do Americans. The West Germans, on average, enjoyed 29 days of paid time off; the French, 26 days. American workers got only 19 days. The Japanese took only nine days.

Many Americans do feel under financial pressure to earn more. In inflation-adjusted terms, hourly wages fell more than 9 percent from 1980 to 1989. Hourly benefits, such as pensions and health insurance, dropped even more, by 18.8 percent.

By putting in more hours, the average U.S. worker just made up for the decline in hourly wages. The end result was that the average worker in 1987 was working 5.9 percent more hours at an hourly wage 3.3 percent lower than in 1979.

Mr. Freeman suspects that one reason for the shorter work week in Europe is that governments and trade unions have forced it on employers. Most West Germans, for example, take four or five weeks of vacation, compared with two or three weeks in the United States. The proportion of workers belonging to trade unions is far larger than in the United States. The unions insist on shorter hours in their negotiations.

The West German metal workers union is pushing for a 35-hour week. Retail workers in West Germany have managed to persuade the government to maintain stern limits on the hours of store openings on weekends or in the evenings.

In the United States, strong competition without so much regulation makes it more difficult for employers to grant reduced work hours. And high unemployment, especially among the less educated and skilled, makes it tougher for a worker to insist on shorter hours.

"There's a good supply of people out there to take your job," Mr. Freeman says. That fear may even apply to highly paid executives."

"I have wealthy executive friends who don't take any vacation," Mr. Freeman notes. "They have power. But what do they do with their money? It is crazy."

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