Md. workweek is decades old Schedule is among the shortest in U.S.

February 11, 1991|By Jon Morgan | Jon Morgan,Evening Sun Staff

Gov. William Donald Schaefer's attempt to lengthen th workweek of thousands of state employees has set off a bitter debate about fairness and productivity.

It has also raised the question of how state workers got a 35.5-hour workweek to begin with.

Some union officials say the shorter hours were accepted decades ago in lieu of a pay raise. But the historical record suggests the schedule has been in place for more than 50 years and is the product of a variety of social forces that have shaped the nation over the past century.

About 40,000 state employees -- two-thirds of Maryland's non-university system work force -- now put in workdays of 7.1 hours, among the shortest of any full-time public employees in the nation. In most cases, that works out to an eight-hour day with a 54-minute unpaid lunch.

Schaefer issued an executive order last month putting all full-time state workers in Maryland on a 40-hour week with no change in pay. But after intense lobbying by state employees, Schaefer reversed himself temporarily last Wednesday, the day the new shifts were to go into effect.

He said he still intends to press for a 40-hour week but not until July 1, when his staff will have had more time to look at ways it can be implemented. Schaefer claims that the longer week will increase productivity, although workers fear it will drive up their day-care costs and cause other hardships.

Bernard F. Nossel remembers when the current schedule was adopted. He joined the state in 1940 as an account clerk in the comptroller's office. Back then, the standard schedule was 6.5 hours a day Monday through Friday and three hours on Saturday.

"When I came to work for the state, my boss, who had started in 1914, said they had always worked those hours," recalled Nossel, 77, who retired as chief deputy comptroller in 1974.

But by 1942, the United States was embroiled in World War II and trying to preserve gasoline for the war effort. To save a day's commute, state workers were rescheduled for a five-day week, he said.

After the war, the state decided to keep the five-day schedule, according to records of a 1945 meeting of the Board of Public Works.

In 1956, the board, which is made up of the governor, state treasurer and comptroller, was asked to clarify the schedules. It said non-office workers at prisons, hospitals and other 24-hour institutions should work 40 hours, presumably because it was easier to schedule three eight-hour shifts a day. Other state workers were to put in not less than 35.5 hours, according to the minutes of the meeting.

That format is still in force. About 20,000 prison guards, State Police and other "institutional" workers put in 40-hour weeks.

The 35.5-hour schedule for the rest of the work force is the only one of its kind in the country, according to a 1990 survey by Workplace Economics Inc., a Silver Spring consulting group.

Only three states have shorter weeks. Connecticut, Rhode Island and New Jersey employees are scheduled for 35-hour weeks. Thirty-six states have 40-hour weeks and 10 report a 37.5-hour week, according to Workplace Economics.

"A few states have extended it [the workweek] as a cost-cutting measure," said Linda Carroll, executive director of the National Association of State Personnel Directors in Lexington, Ky.

Despite these efforts, the trend of history has been going the other way, said Dan Dickinson, with the Productivity Communication Center in Chapel Hill, N.C.

A century ago, most people worked 12 hours a day, six days a week, he said.

"It was a duplication of the traditional farm day. On the farm, you worked sunup to sundown and when the office came along, they just applied it," he said.

The average workday began getting shorter early this century as unions gained power and technology allowed more work to be done in less time, Dickinson said.

As a way of combating high unemployment following World War I, there was a move toward 45-hour workweeks, including a half-day on Saturday. The idea gained ground during the Great Depression when unemployment hit 25 percent. Several Northern industrial states tried to encourage the effort by reducing the workweek for their employees, Dickinson said.

He speculated that this may have been the source of Maryland's workweek, although the 6 1/2 -hour day may have served other purposes as well early in the century. Industries with a large amount of female workers often scheduled them for shorter days to accommodate household duties. Public transportation was also not as speedy and people needed extra time to get to and from the office, he said.

In recent decades, the shorter workweek in Maryland has been viewed as a perk of state employment, along with a good retirement and benefits package, Nossel said.

"I wouldn't say it drove people to state work, but it didn't hurt," he said.

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