Future or Fiction: A Friday-Free Workweek

Melissa Wells, SPA/MPP ’10, deputy majority whip, Maryland House of Delegates (D-Baltimore City), and regional director, Baltimore-DC Building Trades union, on the likelihood—and likely repercussions—of fewer hours on the clock

Illustrated image of Melissa Wells

Q. In December the Congressional Progressive Caucus endorsed the 32-Hour Workweek Act, calling for overtime after 32 hours, thus opening the door to a four-day workweek. When Iceland piloted a similar program, it found that a truncated schedule yielded steady or increased productivity in most workplaces. Still, many dismiss the proposal as a pipedream that can’t be implemented at scale. Do you buy a future of work that’s Friday-free?

A. In progressive European countries where employee-friendly policies already exist, a 32-hour workweek wouldn’t require much adjustment. But we’re talking about America, where paid time off is not legally required and 23 percent of people don’t even have it, according to the Center for Economic and Policy Research.

Industries that saw more seamless shifts to remote work would likely find a switch to four days less daunting. But I foresee challenges for sectors like mine—construction—in which more than 2 million new workers are already needed over the next three years to meet demand.

I would also worry about unintended consequences for the most vulnerable. How would a 32-hour workweek impact schools? Would Medicare patients be forced to cram their appointments into a tighter window? Would transit service be cut back on Fridays? And would employers exploit a loophole, dropping hourly workers to 31 hours to avoid paying for benefits?  

We’re presented with a chicken-and-egg question. If workers made fairer wages, benefited from more generous leave policies, had more paid time off—and weren’t discouraged from using it—would we be talking about 32 hours? I don’t know, but the important thing is the conversation around giving people their time back has changed—because we’re now having it.