U.S. working more hours

Americans add nearly a week to work year, U.N. agency says

Leads industrial nations

September 01, 2001|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

A U.N. agency provided some discouraging news yesterday to Americans who believe they are overworked, finding that American workers have increased their substantial lead over Japan and all other industrial nations in the number of hours worked each year.

The report, issued by the International Labor Organization, found that Americans added nearly a full week to their work year during the 1990s, climbing to 1,978 hours on average last year, up 36 hours - almost a full work week - from 1990. That means Americans who are employed are putting in nearly 49 1/2 weeks a year on the job.

Americans work 100 more hours or 2 1/2 weeks more per year than Japanese workers, 250 hours (about 6 weeks) more per year than British workers and 500 hours (12 1/2 weeks) more per year than German workers, the report said.

The Japanese were long at the top of the heap for the number of hours worked, but in the mid-1990s the United States surpassed Japan, and since then the United States has pulled further ahead.

"It's unique to Americans that they continue to increase their working hours, while hours are declining in other industrialized nations," said Lawrence Jeff Johnson, the economist who oversaw the labor organization's report.

"It has a lot to do with the American psyche, with American culture. American workers are eager to make the best impression, to put in the most hours," he said.

Many economists say the numbers demonstrate that the U.S. economic boom of the 1990s provided plenty of work for tens of millions of Americans.

In contrast, the economies of Europe and Japan grew far more slowly, if at all, causing many companies to cut back on the length of the workweek.

Patrick Cleary, senior vice president for human resources policy at the National Association of Manufacturers, said, "Clearly, for most of these years, the increase in hours tracks outstanding economic performance in the United States, which translates into more income for all those workers, so we don't see this necessarily as bad news at all."

Vacation time

Among the reasons for the large differences between the United States and other countries are that Europeans typically take four to six weeks of vacation each year while Americans take two to three weeks.

And while American employers kept adding overtime during the 1990s, in France the government reduced the official workweek to 35 hours with the aim of pressuring companies to hire more workers.

Juliet Schor, a sociology professor at Boston College and author of "The Overworked American," said that one reason for the nation's longer average work year is that American workers seem to be squeezed increasingly during both booms and busts.

"All the direction seems to be for longer hours," she said. "In expansions, companies keep giving more work to their workers, and in recessions, there will be downsizing and fewer people working, but the workers who remain have to work longer hours to retain their jobs."

Many economists say the number of hours Americans work each year might begin to level off now that many automakers and other manufacturers have reduced the amount of overtime assigned in light of the economic slowdown.

Economists give many reasons for the increase in the number of hours worked by Americans. Mothers with young children tend to work sooner and for more hours per week than young mothers did a decade or two ago.

More and more Americans are salaried professionals, like investment bankers and lawyers, who often work 60 or more hours per week. In addition, many low-wage workers are working two or three jobs to make ends meet.

High productivity

In the report's best news for the United States, the International Labor Organization ranked the United States No. 1 in the world in productivity per worker.

The study said that last year productivity per American worker in constant 1990 dollars was $54,870, about $1,500 more than in Belgium, the No. 2 nation.

The report found that productivity per worker in the United States was $10,000 higher than in Canada last year and $14,000 higher than in Japan.

But partly because of the comparatively high number of hours Americans work, the report found that France and Belgium edged out the United States in productivity per hour.

In France, which ranked first, workers produced $33.71 of value added per hour on average, compared with $32.98 in Belgium and $32.84 in the United States.

Burnout

Ellen Galinsky, president of the Families and Work Institute, a New York based-research group, said the large number of hours Americans work can result in burned-out workers with lower productivity.

"Our overall productivity is high because we work more hours," she said. "But our research show there is a possible point of diminishing returns."

Geoffrey Godbey, an expert on working hours at Penn State University, said it is difficult to measure how many hours workers work per week or per year, saying those statistics often rely on workers' memories.

But officials from the International Labor Organization defended their report, saying it relied on statistics from household surveys and employer reports.

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