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Bernie Sanders pushes bill to establish a four-day workweek

The Sanders-led bill would reduce the standard workweek from 40 to 32 hours over four years and protect workers' pay and benefits.
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Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., held a hearing Thursday on a bill he introduced to reduce the standard U.S. workweek to four days without loss of pay.

The bill, titled the “Thirty-Two Hour Work Week Act,” would reduce the standard workweek from 40 to 32 hours over the span of four years, including lowering the maximum hours required for overtime compensation for nonexempt employees. It would also require overtime pay at time and a half for workdays that last more than eight hours and overtime pay that would pay workers double their regular pay if their workday is longer than 12 hours.

A press release on the bill described it as an “important step toward ensuring workers share in increasing productivity and economic growth driven by technological advancements.”

“Moving to a 32-hour workweek with no loss of pay is not a radical idea,” Sanders said in a statement. “Today, American workers are over 400 percent more productive than they were in the 1940s. And yet, millions of Americans are working longer hours for lower wages than they were decades ago. That has got to change.”

“The financial gains from the major advancements in artificial intelligence, automation and new technology must benefit the working class, not just corporate CEOs and wealthy stockholders on Wall Street,” he said. “It is time to reduce the stress level in our country and allow Americans to enjoy a better quality of life. It is time for a 32-hour workweek with no loss in pay. I look forward to the discussion this week.”

Sanders introduced the legislation with Sen. Laphonza Butler, D-Calif.; Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif., introduced companion legislation in the House.

Sanders, who chairs the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, has asked United Auto Workers President Shawn Fain, Boston College sociology professor Juliet Schor and Jon Leland, chief strategy officer of Kickstarter and co-founder of the Four Day Workweek Campaign, to testify at the hearing on the proposal.

In a news release on the bill, Sanders cites studies that say that although weekly wages for average American workers are lower than they were 50 years ago after adjusting for inflation, CEOs make hundreds of times more than what their workers earn.

“It’s time that working families— not just CEOs and wealthy shareholders — are able to benefit from increased productivity so that they can enjoy more leisure time, family time, education and cultural opportunities, and less stress,” the fact sheet says.

Sanders also pointed to other countries that have reduced their workweeks, such as France, Norway and Denmark, as well as four-day workweek pilot programs that found increased productivity and satisfaction among workers.

During the hearing Thursday, Sanders highlighted productivity statistics from other countries that have adopted shorter workweeks. 

“One of the issues that we have to talk about is stress in this country, the fact that so many people are going to work exhausted physically and mentally,” he said. “And the fact that we have not changed the Fair Labor Standards Act — this was in 1940. We came up with the 40-hour workweek in 1940. Who is going to deny that the economy has not fundamentally and radically changed over that period of time?”

Fain highlighted that many workers in the U.S. are working for less pay and can’t retire until later in life, when they could be dealing with considerable health problems.

“The truth is working-class people aren’t lazy. They’re fed up. They’re fed up with being left behind and stripped of dignity as wealth inequality in this nation, this world, spirals out of control,” Fain said. “They’re fed up in America. In America, three families have as much wealth as the bottom 50% of citizens in this nation. That is criminal.”

The committee's ranking member, Bill Cassidy, R-La., countered that U.S. workers have balanced work and personal lives and that individual businesses could benefit from reducing their workweeks if it is conducive for their specific lines of work. 

However, Cassidy argued, a mandated 32-hour work week with the same pay would be detrimental to small businesses, restaurants and trades. He also cautioned that a reduced workweek would appear to be beneficial to the American worker in the short term but could later lead to layoffs if businesses could not keep up.

“We have a balance. We don’t have people as they do in China working 80 hours a week, but we have that balance — this disrupts that balance,” Cassidy said, referring to the bill. “And we won’t maintain the status of being the world’s wealthiest nation if we kneecap the American economy with something which purports to be good for the American worker but indeed will lead to offshoring of jobs seeking for a lower-cost labor force.”