California could adopt a four-day workweek. Is that a good thing?

A new bill proposes shrinking the standard workweek to 32 hours, giving employees an extra eight hours, or a full day, of free time
More time for loafing.
More time for loafing.
Image: Reuters/Lucy Nicholson
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“The drive for the four-day workweek has become serious.”

A feature writer for the New York Times Magazine made that argument… in 1964.

“The time has come to take a hard look at both the presumed advantages and disadvantages,” wrote the late Edward Chase.

More than half a century and one (ongoing) pandemic later, the push for a shorter workweek is once again inspiring headlines and governments around the world. The latest call comes from California, where lawmakers have introduced a state assembly bill that would redefine the workweek, setting 32 hours, rather than 40, as the new standard.

If passed, bill AB293 would require companies to provide overtime pay for people whose hours exceed the new legal threshold, but it would only apply to companies with more than 500 workers. Still, that would impact an estimated 2,600 firms in the state and 3.6 million people in a workforce of about 17 million, the San Francisco Chronicle reports.

Employers in unionized workplaces would be exempt from the 32-hour law because collective agreements might offer similar or better terms, State assembly member Cristina Garcia, one of the bill’s co-authors, told the Chronicle.

Other questions about the bill, which is now facing review by the Assembly Labor and Employment Committee, remain unanswered. State lawmakers would need to determine how it would impact salaried employees, for example, or those who are employed by large California-based companies but live elsewhere.

However, the proposal stipulates that companies could not cut workers’ current salary.

Is this four-day workweek scheme a good idea?

In theory, most employees would happily welcome a four-day workweek. However, Nicholas Bloom, a Stanford University economics professor, said California’s version of the four-day week is “terrifying.”

“If they introduce this, businesses will reduce employment through hiring freezes and layoffs,” he told the Chronicle, and many companies would move to neighboring states.

The California Chamber of Commerce warned that the four-day week would make hiring more expensive. The bill now appears on the organization’s annual list of potential “job killers.”

What are the advantages of the four-day workweek?

Still, the idea may not be so easily dismissed.

Unlike in 1964 (and during other former attempts to install a four-day week in the US), California legislators now have plenty of precedents and data to consider when weighing the benefits of the bill. A host of private companies and political leaders around the world have adopted versions of a four-day workweek, reporting mostly positive results. Notably, a large, multiyear trial in Iceland found that employees who were given an extra day off felt better able to look after their health and to care for children. (Others have argued it wasn’t as successful as many media outlets suggested.)

🎧 For more on the benefits of a shorter week, listen to the Work Reconsidered podcast episode on the four-day workweek. Or subscribe via: Apple Podcasts | Spotify | Google | Stitcher.

Though company managers involved in the Iceland study expressed concern about employee time pressures and heavier workloads, they also said that most workers were far more energized and engaged after moving to a four-day week.

Since that experiment began, the covid-19 pandemic has made employees’ wellbeing and mental health a top concern for companies. Amid record levels of job-hopping and quitting, employers have introduced flexible hours and other supportive benefits. Now proponents of the California bill say they want state law to recognize and formalize such shifts.

Garcia also argues that a 32-hour workweek would help companies attract and retain employees, while encouraging women who left the workforce during the pandemic—and especially working mothers—to return.

“We’re seeing a labor shortage across the board from small to big businesses,” she told Fortune. Employees, she said, “don’t want to go back to normal or the old way.”