Utah's Demise of the Four-Day Workweek

The governor's office and the legislature disagreed on how productive fewer days and longer hours were, ultimately bringing back the five-day workweek.
by | July 13, 2011
 

In 2008, Utah's then-Gov. Jon Huntsman signed an executive order setting up a new workweek for state employees: four, 10-hour day schedules that would keep state buildings open Monday through Thursday from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. Huntsman argued that longer hours and fewer days would boost customer service, improve employee morale and decrease energy consumption, saving the state $3 million. After the one-year pilot phase, a report from the governor's office found that a majority of employees supported the new schedule, which helped save on overtime, energy, custodial and fleet costs.

Utah had been the only state that had a majority of its workforce on the non-traditional "4/10s" schedule. Over the past year though, the four-day workweek has been a contentious issue between those who think the schedule is beneficial and those who see the loss of some Friday services as detrimental to the public. Ultimately, the state will revert back to a five-day workweek in September, with repercussions for the state's workforce.

Doubts on 4/10s emerged last year, when the Utah Legislature released an audit claiming that the state overestimated how much it saved during the first year. Far from Huntsman's estimate of $3 million in savings, the Legislature estimated that the program had saved less than $1 million. The audit recognized some unexpected benefits, like reductions in overtime and maintenance costs, but called into question if those were directly linked to the 4/10 schedule. The recommendation from the audit wasn't to end the program outright, but to have each agency determine if the 4/10 schedule was appropriate for the work done in that office.

Employee response to the 4/10 schedule was also featured, with a key focus on how the program affected productivity. Employees reported feeling equally productive, if not more so, with the new schedule, according to state surveys. But the audit took issue with the lack of hard data to back any increase in productivity, and stated that anecdotal evidence shows both gains and losses in productivity, depending on the work unit. The audit warned that a one percent decrease in productivity would cost the state $15 million.

In early 2011, state Rep. Mike Noel sponsored a bill that would require state agencies to be open at least nine hours per day, five days a week. He cited public opinion polls that showed that 20 to 30 percent of Utah residents didn't like the 4/10 schedule. When the bill passed, current Gov. Gary Herbert vetoed it, stating that "the people of Utah have grown accustomed to extended Monday through Thursday hours." The elimination of the early and late hours would, he said, "be too disruptive, and simply bad policy, to change them now." Additionally, Herbert said in a letter to the Legislature that the cost of adding Fridays back to the schedule would be estimated at $800,000.

Ultimately, the Legislature overrode the veto. In June, Herbert issued a letter to state workers, informing them that as of Sept. 6, the state would return to the five-day schedule. The governor called the decision "the best alternative to balance both customer and employee needs." He recognized the difficulty employees may face with the change in schedule, saying that "[t]his transition will undoubtedly require a spirit of cooperation from all employees, so please know that I personally appreciate everything you do on behalf of the people of Utah."

It now falls to Jeff Herring, executive director of the state's Department of Human Resource Management, to assist in the reversion back to the five-day schedule. He admits that the switch will be challenging for employees who may see their commuting costs and child care expenses rise by 20 percent. Herring also says that the state might see some loss in productivity in places where it takes a long time to start up and shut down computers and other machinery. "A lot of employees felt more productive, liked the longer weekends and appreciated having fewer starts and stops [on their projects]," Herring says.

The loss of 4/10s means the state will have to find new ways to attract the best employees to Utah state government. Providing a four-day schedule was a benefit that allowed the state to differentiate itself even though it wasn't able to offer the best salaries, and this flexibility was a draw for some candidates. "We'll look at other ways of trying to become an employer of choice," says Herring. One thing his department is doing is conducting a total compensation study to see how it compares to other employers.

Utah's decision to end the 4/10 schedule will be as closely watched as its pilot program was. But whether it will impact the cities and counties with 4/10 schedules already in place, or whether it will stall the 4/10 process in other states remains to be seen. Even in the face of this transition in Utah, it'll remain business as usual. "Government is about serving the needs of the citizens and our workforce is committed to that," says Herring.

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