Tumble outta bed
And I stumble to the kitchen
Pour myself a cup of ambition
And yawn and stretch
And try to come to life
— Dolly Parton, “9 to 5”
Long before the 24/7 label came to life, country star Dolly Parton lamented about the legendary beginning to a “typical” workday. Fred Flintstone leapt when that end-of-shift whistle sprang him loose for a bowling night with Barney. From Nashville to the town of Bedrock, those two time points likely represent the most watched hands (or digital numbers) on office clocks. Since the passage of the Fair Labor Standards Act in 1938, we have been the generation measured by the 40-hour workweek.
But could a proposed federal law rewrite this cultural and legal history?
Introduced before Congress last year, the Working Families Flexibility Act would allow employees to apply for changes in the terms or conditions of their employment relating to the:
- employees’ required work hours
- employees’ required start time
- employees’ required worksite
- notice that employers give regarding work schedule assignments
In turn, an employer would be required to meet, discuss and give the employee a written decision about the application “within a reasonable period.”
However, an employer would be allowed to reject such an application based upon various factors, including: (1) the identifiable cost of the change in a term or condition of employment; (2) costs associated with loss of productivity, of retraining or hiring employees, or of transferring employees from one facility to another facility; or (3) the overall financial resources involved in such a request.
Under the proposed legislation, to be eligible for a flex-time option, an employee would have to work an average of at least 20 hours per week, or at least 1,000 hours per year. Employers with fewer than 15 employees would be exempt.
While this law would be a newcomer to the U.S., a legal right to flex time is currently available in the United Kingdom, the Netherlands and Germany, where workers can request a change in working hours. Supporters say such flexibility promotes a culture of work-life balance.
Increasingly, flexible working hours are becoming a reality in U.S. workplaces. In 2012, the National Study of Employers (NES) conducted a nationwide survey of more than 1,000 employers. This NSE report noted the following trends:
- Flex time (offered by 77 percent of workplaces, up from 66 percent in 2005)
- Flex place/telecommuting (63 percent, up from 34 percent)
- Choices in managing time (93 percent, up from 78 percent)
- Daily time off when important needs arise (87 percent, up from 77 percent)
Thus, employers are already adapting to modern trends, and further legislation may not be necessary or desired. Even so, change comes ever so slowly to the venerable workweek.
Back around 871, King Alfred the Great of England observed, “Eight hours work, eight hours sleep, eight hours play, make a just and healthy day.” During the 1870s, eight hours became a central demand, especially among labor organizers, with a network of Eight-Hour Leagues, which held rallies and parades. In Chicago, the Eight-Hour League was created in 1878. The mandate of the FLSA did not appear for another 50 years.
Across the globe, the practices of other industrial nations resemble current U.S. employment and labor laws. In Canada, overtime begins after employees have worked 44 hours in a workweek. Japan also has a legal limit that working hours must, in principle, not exceed 40 hours per week or eight hours per day, excluding breaks. If an employee works six hours, the employer must give that employee not less than a 45-minute break; this increases to a one-hour break when working hours exceed eight hours. In Poland, aggregated weekly working hours and overtime work may not exceed 48 hours a week. Overtime, as a rule, may not exceed 150 hours a year.
Finding the proper work-life balance is a win-win situation for today’s workplace. It can result in the employee who maximizes his or her potential, perhaps by arriving at work at 6:00 a.m., for the benefit of the employer who gains productivity and commitment by adapting to new hours. In the words of the famous Japanese bridge designer, Miyoko Ohno, “Balance is beautiful.”