The 75th anniversary of the 40 hour workweek is not a time for celebration, but for action. Specifically, it's time for Americans to fight for more time off.
That's according to Take Back Your Time, a national advocacy group that focuses on expanding workers' rights to leisure time. The group points out that while productivity has skyrocketed in the seven decades since the 40 hour workweek was enshrined in the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), there has been no corresponding decrease in workload for workers.
While most other industrialized countries shortened their standard workweeks in the decades following World War II and mandated several weeks of paid vacation, Americans are puzzlingly resistant to taking time off, the group says.
“After 75 years, it’s time to add paid vacation to the FLSA and catch up with every other wealthy country in the world,” said group President John de Graaf. “It might also be time to consider a shorter workweek as well.”
According to the group, about a quarter of American workers receive no paid vacation. But even those who do receive far less than their counterparts elsewhere in the western world. In the United Kingdom, for instance, full-time employees are entitled to a minimum of 28 paid vacation days a year.
There is little hope of getting any big labor reforms through the Republican-controlled Congress in the near future. Republicans and allied business groups vehemently oppose such requirements, arguing that they would overburden businesses and slow down the economy.
In fact, vacation has not traditionally been a major focus of worker advocacy groups on Capitol Hill. If anything, it is typically a lack of work, either by unemployment or employers cutting hours to deny workers benefits, that unions and other groups on the left have set their sights on.
But whether or not mandatory vacation ever becomes a reality in the U.S., the notion of generous vacation is picking up steam in the private sector. Big companies, particularly tech firms, have been falling over themselves trying to outdo their competitors on vacation, parental leave and scheduling flexibility.
However, what is taking place in Silicon Valley may not be emblematic of the future of the U.S. economy. Generous vacation policies are often aimed at luring and retaining highly-skilled workers with significant negotiating leverage. Workers who are lower on the economic ladder are less likely to benefit from the same level of employer generosity.
The idea of reducing the workweek — a staple of left-of-center politics in Europe — is almost entirely absent from the American political debate. But Take Back Your Time says it's time for that to change.
“The 40-hour week is not eternal,” said Cecile Andrews, chair of the group's board. “It did not begin in the Garden of Eden. It is a law, appropriate to a period of time and a level of economic development."
The challenge that the group faces is as cultural as legal or economic, however. Studies show that many employees don't even take the vacation they're entitled to.