The 40-hour work week—dead or alive?

Posted on June 12, 2007 

The 40-hour work week—dead or alive?

When the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) was passed in 1938, it was heralded as a giant step in protecting the rights of American workers—guaranteeing financial compensation for time worked in excess of 40 hours a week. The “40-hour work week” was born, and the term “9-to-5” became synonymous with working “full time.”

Fast forward six decades. Although the 40-hour week is still considered the benchmark in American work culture, most researchers would argue that it is nearly as obsolete as most of the factory jobs to which it was originally applied. According to a recent survey by, 63 percent of Americans work more than 40 hours a week, with some 40 percent exceeding the 50-hour a week mark. More than $21 billion dollars in vacation time goes unused annually (and back to employers!), as we spend 2.5 more weeks—and three months more—at work than do our Japanese and western European counterparts, respectively.

“Basically, there is a move by employers to have fewer workers do more work. Part of that is because of pension costs, but a bigger part of is the cost of health care. While it isn’t the employers’ fault that health care goes up 10 to 20 percent a year, it is their fault that their associations have fought a universal health-care system, which every country in western Europe has. Here, the employers have to pay for employees’ health care, and that’s the essence of the problem,” he said. “There is a big push in industry and hospitals to move to the 12-hour shift, with no over-time pay after eight hours,” said Ashby. “All the studies show that this leads to more health problems and accidents. Unions agreed to these terms reluctantly because they are afraid to strike for fear of being locked out or permanently replaced.”


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