THE BLOG
07/11/2008 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

The Four Day Work Week Gains Speed, Saves Gas

Soon the Senate will consider the Federal Employees Paid Parental Leave Act (HR 5781), which the House just passed. A new email from MomsRising tells me "It's time for the federal government to become a model employer by offering their workforce paid parental leave, and to pave the way for the rest of the nation to follow. The Act guarantees qualifying federal workers four weeks of paid parental leave for the birth or adoption "of a new child. It would also enable federal workers to use up to eight weeks of accrued paid sick time immediately following the first four weeks of parental leave."

MomsRising supports the bill because it will hopefully serve as a model for private employers. Right on, I'll sign the petition. But paid leave for all in a rough economy feels like a stretch. Right now, though, I'm encouraged by how state and municipal governments are modeling flexible work practices. Utah just became the first state to provide state employees a mandatory four day work week. The four-day work week is gaining popularity among city and county governments and it's getting a lot of press of late. The four day rule was started to save energy costs for both the state and employees, but has become something of a benefit to workers seeking flexible options. A recent USA Today piece cites "Rex Facer, an assistant professor at Brigham Young University whose research team is studying the four-day work week concept, estimates that about one-sixth of U.S. cities with populations above 25,000 offer employees a four-day work week. His projection is based on the team's continuing survey of 150 city human resource directors."

Apparently, either Henry Ford or the labor unions are the reason Americans traditionally work 5 days a week, for 40 hours. Whatever the cause, in 1938 Congress passed the Fair Labor Standards Act regulating the eight hour day, 40 hour week. That was 70 years ago: most women did not work outside the home, the blackberry wasn't even yet the stuff of science fiction. And so, most scholars of work and many Americans agree: the traditional work schedule is a relic. Technology and new family arrangements, for good and ill, means fewer of us have to be in the office the whole time but that more of us are sending emails at ungodly hours. I think a lot of us are confused about what's right and what will work.

Is the four day work week an idea whose time has come? Numbers are pretty compelling. Writing at the Oil Drum, Aaron Newton notes

The idea of a shorter work week is not a new one to anyone old enough to have lived through the energy shocks of the 1970's. It should be fairly obvious to anyone interested in conserving oil that reducing the number of daily commutes per week would reduce the overall demand for oil. There are about 133 million workers in America. Around 80% of them get to work by driving alone in a car. The average commute covers about 16 miles each way. The math, as I see it, goes as thus (I welcome a discussion of these numbers, by the way...):
133,000,000 workers X 80% who drive alone = 106,400,000 single driver commuter cars each day.
106,400,000 X 32 miles round trip = 3,404,800,000 miles driven to work each day
3,404,800,000 / 21 mpg (average fuel efficiency) = 162,133,333 gallons of gasoline each day
Each barrel of crude oil produces, on average, 19.5 gallons of gas. (It is important to note that other products like kerosene and asphalt are produced from that same barrel.)
162,133,333 / 19.5 = 8,314,530 barrels of oil each day.
What this shows is Reason #1; the impact a 4 day work week could have on crude oil imports. I'm talking about a 10-20% and even perhaps a 40% reduction in the amount of oil we need Monday through Friday simply by rearranging our work week. No wonder this idea was utilized in the 70's.
But the clear fact that a 4 day work week would save such a precious non-renewable resource is just the first of 16 reasons why I think it's time to revive the idea of reducing the numbers of days we work each week. The 4 Day Work Week would reduce greenhouse gas emissions and other air pollutants.

Aaron's 14 other reasons for reducing the work week are equally compelling. To me, there's a large, non-sustainability related reason. When workers lack control over their schedules, they feel stressed. When we try to manage conflicts between work time and family time, we feel stressed. An extra day at home a week could go a long way towards mitigating such stress, thus reducing turnover and saving employers money.

As most of us now complete a four day holiday week, we can encourage Congress to support paid family leave, and consider ways we can be change agents and save energy in our own workplaces. How many of you work flexible schedules? Does it work for you and your families?