Bernie Sanders to Propose a Mandated 32-Hour Workweek

Would reducing the workweek to 32 hours make workers happier? Would it be less stressful? Vermont Socialist Senator Bernie Sanders thinks it’s a great idea and will propose legislation mandating a 32-hour workweek for the same money workers earn in 40 hours.

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There’s no doubt this would be a popular piece of legislation with many workers. And Sanders, surprisingly, makes some good points about why the change would be beneficial.

“Moving to a 32-hour workweek with no loss of pay is not a radical idea,” Sanders said in a statement. “Today, American workers are over 400 percent more productive than they were in the 1940s. And yet, millions of Americans are working longer hours for lower wages than they were decades ago. That has got to change.”

“The financial gains from the major advancements in artificial intelligence, automation, and new technology must benefit the working class, not just corporate CEOs and wealthy stockholders on Wall Street,” he said. “It is time to reduce the stress level in our country and allow Americans to enjoy a better quality of life. It is time for a 32-hour workweek with no loss in pay. I look forward to the discussion this week.”

It’s misleading to compare work in the 1940s with work today. There are different jobs, different skill sets, and, most importantly, different measures of productivity. It’s apples and oranges.

There is absolutely no empirical evidence that a shorter workweek relieves stress and makes workers happier. Some studies show that a shorter week improves productivity but it’s impossible to accurately measure “happiness.” Social scientists measure “satisfaction,” which is not the same thing as “happiness.”

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As far as relieving stress, however many hours an employee puts in, the work has to get done. I doubt whether relieving stress levels would be measurable.

NBC News:

In a news release on the bill, Sanders cites studies that say that although weekly wages for average American workers are lower than they were 50 years ago after adjusting for inflation, CEOs make hundreds of times more than what their workers earn.

“It’s time that working families— not just CEOs and wealthy shareholders — are able to benefit from increased productivity so that they can enjoy more leisure time, family time, education and cultural opportunities, and less stress,” the fact sheet says.

Wages are not just a measure of wealth. Even more important than wages is the purchasing power of those wages and what a family is spending money on. When I was growing up in the 1950s and ’60s, color television was a luxury. There were no computers, internet, video games, or smartphones. There was no Apple and no streaming services or satellite technology at all.

All of those things cost families money to possess. Some of them are necessities to live in the modern world. Compared to the 1960s when most of those technologies came into being, they are all far less expensive today.

Is the acquisition of all those gadgets and gewgaws causing America to stress out?

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“One of the issues that we have to talk about is stress in this country, the fact that so many people are going to work exhausted physically and mentally,” he said. “And the fact that we have not changed the Fair Labor Standards Act — this was in 1940. We came up with the 40-hour workweek in 1940. Who is going to deny that the economy has not fundamentally and radically changed over that period of time?”

Work has, indeed, changed radically. There is a lot less physical exertion, and, in fact, machines do most of our heavy lifting and thinking.

To relieve stress, I suggest looking at home life as well. There are far more stressors at home than in most workplaces. And a 32-hour workweek isn’t going to fix that.

The committee’s ranking member, Bill Cassidy, R-La., countered that U.S. workers have balanced work and personal lives and that individual businesses could benefit from reducing their workweeks if it is conducive for their specific lines of work. 

However, Cassidy argued, a mandated 32-hour work week with the same pay would be detrimental to small businesses, restaurants and trades. He also cautioned that a reduced workweek would appear to be beneficial to the American worker in the short term but could later lead to layoffs if businesses could not keep up.

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“We have a balance. We don’t have people as they do in China working 80 hours a week, but we have that balance — this disrupts that balance,” Cassidy said, referring to the bill. “And we won’t maintain the status of being the world’s wealthiest nation if we kneecap the American economy with something which purports to be good for the American worker but indeed will lead to offshoring of jobs seeking for a lower-cost labor force.”

There’s no doubt that at least some American businesses will take their factories elsewhere if this proposal becomes law. And Cassidy is right. This proposal would sound the death knell of American economic supremacy. 

Let’s make sure we understand that before taking the leap to a 32-hour workweek.

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