Overworked Americans

Juliet B. Schor

August 02, 1991|By Juliet B. Schor

AMERICANS suffer from an overdose of work. Regardless of who they are or what they do, Americans spend more time at work than at any time since World War II.

In 1950 the United States had fewer working hours than any industrialized country.

Today it exceeds every country but Japan, where industrial employees log 2,155 hours a year compared with 1,951 in the United States and 1,603 in the former West Germany.

Between 1969 and 1989 employed Americans added an average of 138 hours to their yearly work schedules.

The workweek has remained at about 40 hours, but people are working more weeks each year.

Moreover, paid time off -- holidays, vacations, sick leave -- shrank by 15 percent in the 1980s.

As corporations have experienced stiffer competition and slower growth in productivity, they have pressed employees to work longer.

Cost-cutting layoffs in the 1980s reduced the professional and managerial ranks, leaving fewer people to get the job done.

In lower-paid occupations, where wages have been reduced, workers have added hours in overtime or extra jobs to preserve their living standard.

The government estimates that more than 7 million people hold a second job.

For the first time large numbers of people say they want to cut back on working hours, even if it means earning less money. But most employers are unwilling to let them do so.

The government, which has stepped back from its traditional role as a regulator of work time, should take steps to make shorter hours possible.

First, it should require employers to give employees the opportunity to trade income for time.

Growth in productivity makes it possible to raise income or reduce working hours.

Since World War II we have "chosen" money over time; one reason is that companies give annual raises but rarely offer more free time. But California municipalities have offered this option successfully.

Second, standard hours should be required for all salaried jobs.

Salaried workers over work 50 or 60 hours a week. When annual pay is fixed, an employer has a powerful motive to induce ever-longer hours of work, since each added hour is "free."

This incentive would disappear if companies were obliged to set a standard workweek for salaried jobs.

Employees who worked beyond the standard would be entitled to paid time off.

Congress should legislate an annual four-week vacation regardless of a worker's length of service.

Nearly all Western European workers get four-to-six week vacations. Americans struggle to hold on to their two weeks.

Other reforms are long overdue:

Paid parental leave is necessary.

* Fringe benefits should be pro-rated by hours of work to give bosses a reason not to overwork employees.

* Time-and-a-half pay for overtime should give way to compensatory time off, and mandatory overtime should be eliminated.

* Wages of adults who earn less than $10 an hour should be raised so they can avoid overwork.

Citing Japanese competition and other pressures, many employers would complain that they cannot afford such measures.

But guaranteed vacations are likely to improve employees' performance: The fatigue and inefficiency resulting from long hours are a major reasons why Japan's productivity remains lower than ours.

The growing scarcity of leisure, the dearth of family time, and the horrors of commuting all point to the need to resume an old but long-ignored discussion on the merits of the 30-hour or even the four-day week.

Juliet B. Schor, associate professor of economics at Harvard, is author of the forthcoming book, "The Overworked American."

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