House Democrats Make Second Attempt To Enact 32 Hour Workweek Nationwide | By: Catherine A. Veeneman
Legislation to reduce the standard 40 hour workweek is once again making the rounds, this time at the Federal level. In March, Representative Mark Takano from California’s 39th District introduced the “Thirty-Two Hour Workweek Act.” If passed, the bill would amend the Fair Labor Standards Act to reduce the standard workweek from 40 hours to 32 hours for non-exempt employees and establish a standard workday for all such workers. Following a three year phase in period, employers would be required to pay all nonexempt employees overtime compensation for any work exceeding 32 hours in a standard workweek, as well as overtime after eight hours in a workday.
In his one pager supporting the bill, Representative Takano notes that, currently, American workers work on average 200 hours more per year than workers in other developed countries. Mr. Takano further notes that wage increases have not remained in step with rising productivity. He argues that the 32 Hour Workweek Act “will allow for more work sharing and labor market participation, while creating a healthier competition in the workplace that empowers workers to negotiate for better wages and working conditions.” Proponents of the bill also note that an initial study conducted in the United Kingdom involving dozens of companies found that a four day workweek succeeded in decreasing stress and burnout in employees without a significant reduction in productivity. The bill has been endorsed by several nonprofit organizations and unions, including the 4 Day Week Global, the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations, and the United Food and Commercial Workers Union.
This marks the second attempt by House Democrats to enact a 32 hour workweek. A similar bill was previously introduced by Representative Takano in July 2021, however that iteration failed to make it out of committee. The fact that Republicans have since regained control of the House does not bode well for the current bill’s likelihood of success. Representative Virginia Foxx (R-NC), chair of the House Education and Workforce Committee, has indicated that she opposes the legislation, citing concerns for the effect of passing a blanket Federal regulation across all industries.
Other recent efforts to reduce the 40 hour workweek have not been successful. Several states have attempted to pass similar legislation in recent years with a similar result. California, New York, Washington, Maryland, and Massachusetts all previously entertained bills enacting a 32 hour workweek. To date, none of these bills have been enacted into law. In California, AB 2932 was put on hold in May 2022, after it failed to garner significant support, resulting in a failure to meet the committee deadline for consideration.
There is no denying that the COVID-19 pandemic and particularly the effect it had on the work culture across several industries has kickstarted many discussions and efforts to restructure the standard workweek. So far, however, lawmakers remain too entrenched in traditional norms to commit to any significant change. At both the federal and state level, opponents cite at least two key concerns repeatedly to block any attempt to reduce the workweek: (1) the burden that reducing the standard workweek would place on small businesses; and (2) whether such a blanket regulation can be successfully applied across all industries.
Regarding the first concern, opponents have argued that reducing the standard workweek to 32 hours will place an insurmountable financial burden on smaller businesses by increasing total payroll costs, either through increased overtime or new hires. Advocates for the 32 hour workweek in Maryland attempted to address this concern by shaping their legislation around a proposed pilot program that would offer tax incentives to participating companies to offset any increase in costs associated with increased overtime and/or new hires. While ultimately unsuccessful in Maryland, any bill proposing a reduction to the workweek would likely stand a better chance of success by incorporating measures to offset at least some of the potential economic impact smaller employers would face as a result of increased labor costs.
In terms of the effectiveness of a blanket regulation across all industries, proponents of reducing the workweek typically point to recent studies, including the pilot program recently conducted in the United Kingdom, which have indicated a reduced workweek is proven to be beneficial to both employers and employees across several industries. There is also the argument that history has already proven the effectiveness of a blanket regulation with the enactment of a 40 hour workweek; in 1940 the FLSA was amended to reduce the workweek from 44 hours to 40 hours. Regardless, these arguments have failed to convince more conservative lawmakers to abandon the traditional 40 hour workweek. Nevertheless, given the volume of reduced workweek legislation that has appeared in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, it seems likely that the conversation surrounding adjusting the traditional workweek to address growing concerns with employee well-being will continue.
For a wider discussion on the issue, ECJ will be hosting a webinar on work time reduction on Thursday, June 15, 2023, from 1:00 to 2:00. The webinar will be co-presented by Kelly Scott, Chair of ECJ’s Employment Law Department, and Joe O’Connor, the Director and Co-founder of the Work Time Reduction Center of Excellence. RSVPs to attend the webinar may be made at https://www.eventbrite.com/e/work-time-reduction-webinar-tickets-633655379297
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