Furlough Fever

Are four-day workweeks the beginning of a permanent trend or a passing phenomenon?
by | February 2010

A few decades ago, the idea of a four-day workweek was a utopian dream of futurists who expected American prosperity and rising productivity to enable workers to enjoy more leisure, with three-day weekends and shorter working hours. Instead, Americans kept working longer hours to make ends meet or to live better - especially in professions like law and finance, where time is money. So it's a bit ironic that a shorter workweek for government workers has come from the exactly opposite reason: running out of money.

The economic recession has forced hundreds of government employers to furlough workers, often on a selective basis. Payless Fridays have become a commonplace solution for balancing shrinking budgets. Rather than lay off workers by eliminating positions to cut the payroll (as typically occurs in the private sector), state and local governments spread the pain of underemployment in 2009 by giving workers an unpaid day every two or three weeks. It has become very common in California to find city hall closed on alternate Fridays, and doors closed for all but police and fire services.

In Utah and Iowa, governors have taken the four-day workweek to the next level by closing buildings one day weekly and reducing work hours. This saves energy costs because buildings require less heating, air conditioning and electricity when they're open one less day each week. The question now is whether this is the beginning of a permanent trend or just a passing phenomenon.

Employee perspectives. From a worker's viewpoint, some think the four-day workweek is a great idea - as long as they earn full pay. Few public employees would voluntarily choose a pay cut for the sole purpose of a longer weekend. So the shorter workweek is viewed grudgingly as an involuntary pay cut by those on furlough. Those who keep full pay can fully appreciate the added flexibility. As we learned the past decade with flextime arrangements, some workers would rather work four 10-hour days and skip the fifth; others find it more complicated arranging for child care and meeting other responsibilities if their workday hours are extended.

Some public services don't operate four days weekly, and never will. Nobody dares to propose that we close the police stations or highway patrol for three days a week, or that fire stations shut down for long weekends. Schools still need to provide teachers and facilities for pupils five days a week - and most parents would freak out if they had to baby-sit their children during their own working hours. So there are some professions in the public service for which a four-day week is ill-suited. (A notable exception is firefighters, who for decades have worked "Kelly shift" hours and other nonconventional schedules, while maintaining 24/7 operations.)

What if the public doesn't notice? Perhaps the most important long-term issue for public-sector managers is whether a temporary shift to a four-day week will change citizens' attitudes about public services. If the library is open fewer days, will support for libraries dwindle? If local builders can't get permits every weekday, will residential construction be hampered? Will local voters begrudge public employees' time off and the reduced access they experience, to the point that they vote against future tax increases at election time? Isn't there a chance that reduced access will translate into reduced willingness to pay? Or is the greater risk that voters will see that nothing changed even when employees were furloughed, so the budget should be cut back permanently even when the economy recovers? This presents a double-edged dilemma for elected officials to ponder.

If the economy recovers, many of the involuntary furloughs may subside by the end of 2010. At least that's what elected officials and governmental union leaders are hoping. However, there are some public employers whose pension and retiree medical costs may increase so much in the next two years, along with other deferred expenses, that they will never be able to restore traditional five-day workweeks.

We sometimes say that state and local governments are laboratories for experimentation. Hopefully this will include the deeper implications of shorter working hours and partial facilities closures. We might learn something important about what the public values - and what it doesn't.

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