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Where does the US rank on weekly work hours?

WASHINGTON (NEXSTAR) – This month, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) proposed legislation in the Senate that would establish a 32-hour workweek with no loss in pay. The last time this topic was discussed in the Senate was nearly 70 years ago in 1955.

Rep. Mark Takano (D-Calif.) reintroduced similar legislation in the House in March 2023, but it didn’t get far.

The recent discussion in Congress has reignited the debate about whether a 32-hour workweek is effective and if it could be implemented in the U.S.

Is a 32-hour workweek effective?

Andrew Barnes, the founder of 4 Day Week Global, argues 32-hour workweeks are more productive than working longer hours. His company has conducted pilot programs with businesses in multiple countries, including the U.S., to help them implement a four-day workweek. He said there is no denying the benefits his company has found through its research.

“In the U.S. trial, the companies in the trial reported that their revenue went up 33% over the previous year,” Barnes said.

He said people also see advantages outside the workplace, arguing they get more sleep, spend more time with their families and see their stress levels go down. He also emphasized that companies that implement a four-day workweek typically see employees staying with the company longer and taking fewer sick days.

Barnes said the companies in his pilot programs have come to understand that “paying a salary or a wage is paying for a level of output that it anticipates it’s gonna get,” rather than paying for “the length of time that you stay at work.”

However, some experts don’t agree with the idea of a four-day workweek. They argue a five-day workweek helps employees maintain a routine, promotes accountability and strengthens communication. One expert who recently testified before Congress said a shorter workweek could put some workers at a disadvantage.

“We also potentially disadvantage older workers who cannot necessarily physically do the same amount of work in a shorter time,” Liberty Vittert, a professor of data science at the Olin Business School, said.

Barnes agrees that a shorter workweek might not work for everyone.

“It’s not a silver bullet; there will always be some people that this will not work for. But the vast majority actually say that working less hours means that they can work in a better way,” Barnes said.

Republicans in Congress have further argued that a four-day workweek would lead to higher inflation and layoffs.

Despite some support for a 32-hour workweek in both the House and the Senate, it seems unlikely the movement would gain enough support to become federal law.

Why was a 40-hour workweek established in the U.S.?

The U.S. decided on a 40-hour workweek more than 80 years ago.

Believe it or not, after the Industrial Revolution in 1817, people were working 80 to 100 hours per week.

This began the push from labor union groups to ask for better working conditions. It wasn’t until 1869 that President Ulysses S. Grant guaranteed eight-hour workdays for government employees. This pushed employees around the country to fight for the same rights.

In 1926, Ford Motor Company became one of the first companies to adopt the five-day, 40-hour workweek for those working in automotive factories. Henry Ford pushed for the change after finding that working more only slightly increased productivity over a short period of time. Other manufacturers and companies soon followed this model.

It wasn’t until 12 years later in 1938 that Congress passed the Fair Labor Standards Act, which established a 44-hour workweek. Two years later Congress amended the act to reduce the workweek to 40 hours.

How many hours per week do people in other countries work?

Several countries have already adopted shorter workweeks or are testing the idea. In 2000, France mandated a 35-hour workweek. Belgium recently passed legislation that allows full-time workers to request a four-day workweek, and the Icelandic government recently changed its workweek to around 35 hours.

According to the International Labour Organization (ILO), the average U.S. worker ranks roughly in the middle at 38 hours weekly. That’s lower than places like India (46.7), China (46.1) and Russia (39.2).

According to data from the ILO, the top five countries with the shortest workweeks are:

  • Vanuatu: 24.7 hours per week per employed person
  • Kiribati: 27.3 hours per week per employed person
  • Rwanda: 30.4 hours per week per employed person
  • Somalia: 31.4 hours per week per employed person
  • Netherlands: 31.6 hours per week per employed person

According to data from the ILO, the top five countries with the longest workweeks are:

  • Bhutan: 54.4 hours per week per employed person
  • United Arab Emirates: 50.9 hours per week per employed person
  • Lesotho: 50.4 hours per week per employed person
  • Congo: 48.6 hours per week per employed person
  • Qatar: 48 hours per week per employed person

It should be noted that the distribution of these hours isn’t necessarily even. For example, in Bhutan, 61% of employees work more than 49 hours per week, which is considered the “excessive working limit” by the ILO.

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