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It is time to start considering the benefits of a 4-day work week for low-wage frontline workers

It is time to start considering the benefits of a 4-day work week for low-wage frontline workers

More than three dozen companies in the U.S. and Canada are joining a total of 150 organizations and 7,000 employees, mostly in white-collar jobs, in a worldwide experiment: they’re changing from a 40-hour, five-day work week to a 32-hour, four-day work week – but with no change in pay.

The pilot is intriguing, but it leaves out a significant percentage of the workforce, low-wage frontline workers, who are more likely to be women and people of color.

Media accounts are framing the 4-day 32-hour week as a “great resignation” era strategy to make office-based white-collar work more appealing.

This is yet another instance of exclusion and neglect of blue-collar and service workers, such as grocery cashiers, nursing assistants, and home health aides, who are disproportionately women, immigrant and workers of color, and people with intersectional identities such as women of color and women with disabilities.

Undoubtedly, a 4-day 32-hour work week is more desirable than a compressed 4-day 40-hour week. It leaves white-collar workers with more discretionary free time for rest, fun, caregiving, and other domestic responsibilities. Even more benefits would accrue to workers laboring in low-wage healthcare, education, retail, food service, and housekeeping jobs.

Reduced work hours and shorter work shifts can bolster the declining physical and mental health of low-wage frontline workers who typically lack medical care benefits and are experiencing heightened stress and burnout levels from working without pause and under great emotional stress and physical risk during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Frontline workers report in-person for long shifts averaging 10 hours or more at work locations far away from home. They frequently work nights, weekends, holidays, and other undesirable shifts.  Women, particularly women of color, experience additional stress from lower pay and disproportionate responsibility for unpaid caregiving and domestic responsibilities. These workers can certainly use discretionary free time from reduced work hours for rest, personal care, upskilling, and connecting with family and friends.

More importantly, a one-size-fits-all approach to reducing work hours will not work as the appropriate alternative to a 5-day 40-hour week varies by worker and work task. For example, healthcare employees working long shifts are tired, stressed, and more prone to errors. Shorter 6-hour shifts for nurses trialed in Sweden resulted in less sick leave, better perceived health, and improved patient outcomes.

Also, employers will need to revise or reduce workloads to match the reduction in work hours. The workloads of workers doing physical labor, and older people and people with special needs who may work at a slower pace will need to be adjusted for the change in hours. Since work-life balance hinges on both discretionary free time and the flexibility to juggle work and life demands, some workers may prefer the flexibility to run errands and follow up on personal tasks at work.  Employers, therefore, should consult employees and work out the tradeoffs before implementing a 4-day work week.

To be sure, a 4-day 32-hour week alone cannot address all the workplace inequities experienced by low-wage frontline workers. It needs to be accompanied by a commensurate increase in daily or hourly wage to ensure that the reduction in overall work hours does not result in a pay cut.

As Poverty Solutions and Economic Mobility Advocate Camryn Banks notes in a recent Aspen Institute blog post, “if not accompanied by a rise in pay, a shorter workweek would mean lower incomes for hourly workers, many of whom already struggle to make ends meet, especially given employers’ tendency to avoid allowing overtime.”

A 4-day 32-hour work week or a 6-day 36-hour week accompanied by a commensurate increase in daily and hourly wages, revised workload, and some scheduling flexibility can mitigate workplace inequities such as low pay, few benefits, and limited flexibility experienced by frontline workers.

Such measures will inevitably require employers to hire more workers to provide frontline services throughout the week. In a knowledge economy that routinely undervalues low-skill workers, employers are likely to resist increasing pay, revising or reducing workloads, and taking on more workers to implement a 4-day workweek.  It is time to stop mistreating frontline workers, who are disproportionately female and people of color,  and ensure the people who work with their hands and hearts are valued alongside white-collar workers.

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