The Four-Day Workweek

Can Albany help solve the state-budget crisis by taking Fridays off? Two Augusts ago, the state of Utah mandated a four-day workweek for most employees of the executive branch, on the theory that closing government offices on Fridays would save about $3 million in gas and electric bills. Unfortunately, the government saved only about $500,000 that way—the price of oil dropped, and many of the large government buildings had to remain open anyway. But last week, Governor Gary Herbert still reported that the change had saved his state $4 million. Why? Utah was spending that much less on overtime pay—a 30 percent decrease from the year before.

This result may sound counterintuitive. If you’re working a four-day week, shouldn’t you need extra time to do your job? But the Utah program still makes its employees work 40 hours per week; they’re just forced to do so on a Monday-to-Thursday schedule, 7 a.m. to 6 p.m., with an hour for lunch. And it turns out that after working four consecutive ten-hour days, many employees were eager to go home and start their long weekends. (“TGIT,” or “Thank God It’s Thursday,” became a jokey state-bureaucracy refrain.)

A bill to enact a similar program now exists here. In fact, it has existed since January, when its sponsor, Democrat Michael N. Gianaris, introduced it on the Assembly floor (and with broad bi-partisan support: seventeen Democratic co-sponsors, eleven Republican). Originally, Gianaris intended the bill as a green measure, figuring it’d save the state tens of millions of dollars in energy costs. Now that the overtime data has come in, he feels certain we’ll save money either way. “Our state workforce,” he notes, “is ten times the size of Utah’s.”

As one might imagine, New York doles out quite a bit in overtime pay—nearly $413 million in fiscal 2009. Most is spent by institutions that couldn’t, realistically, reduce their workweek to four days: courts, hospitals, jails. But if you spend enough time eyeballing the overtime tallies produced by New York’s state comptroller, you realize there are lots of desk-job agencies that could go four days a week. Including the Office of the State Comptroller itself ($3.5 million in overtime pay). Or those at the Department of Labor ($2.6 million), for that matter, or the Department of Tax and Finance ($2.2 million). And it’s almost impossible to imagine why on earth the Suffolk County Payroll District is spending $1.66 million on overtime.

Of course, New Yorkers take a certain greedy pride in their overtime achievements. Shocking extra pay is a cornerstone of tabloid exposés about state employees. But it’s possible a bill like Gianaris’s would change some of that. This summer, a team of management professors at Brigham Young released the results of a survey of 150 human-resource directors nationwide, all of whom worked for city governments with the so-called 4/10 workweek. Sixty-four percent reported an increase in morale. And 41 percent reported an increase in productivity. (Perhaps that helps explain the decrease in overtime pay?) Still, New Yorkers without their overtime? It’s hard to imagine. Perhaps the best we can hope for is that a 4/10 schedule will accommodate the rest of us nongovernment workaholics. “People work so many hours in New York,” says Rex Facer, one of the researchers who did the study. “Maybe it’ll be good for them if the DMV opens at seven.”

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The Four-Day Workweek