California’s French Four-Day Workweek
Another labor economics classic: Democrats want to order employers to pay workers the same wages for fewer hours of work.
By The Editorial Board, WSJ
April 15, 2022 6:56 pm ET
The popular book “The 4-Hour Workweek” provides tips on how to make more money by working less. Now California Democrats are taking a page from the book by proposing to mandate a four-day week, which would require businesses to pay employees the same wages for less work. As labor economics goes, this is up there with paying people not to work and expecting more people to work.
A bill moving through the Legislature would shorten California’s normal workweek to 32 hours from 40 for companies with more than 500 employees. Workers who put in more than 32 hours in a week would have to be paid time-and-a-half. And get this: Employers would be prohibited from reducing workers’ current pay rate, so they would be paid the same for working 20% less.
Democrats say a shorter workweek will help businesses retain burned-out workers and increase productivity and profits. “There has been no correlation between working more hours and better productivity,” Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia says. Do Democrats really think Tesla workers can assemble as many cars in 32 hours as they do in 40?
Many employers, especially in white-collar professions, have begun to offer flexible hours and work arrangements. Some have noticed diminishing returns on labor output whereby workers after a certain point produce less the longer they work. If companies think reducing hours will improve employee morale, productivity and profits, they will do it.
Liberals cite Microsoft’s experiment with a four-day workweek in Japan, which reportedly improved productivity by 40%. But Microsoft also made other changes to boost productivity, including shorter meetings. (The next mandate: No more than two zoom calls a day!) A four-day week might work for tech companies, but it probably won’t for most businesses. Got a medical emergency? Sorry, Friday is the new Saturday at hospitals.
Employers have fixed costs in training and overhead, so reducing work hours raises the marginal cost of each worker. A 32-hour week means employers will have to hire more employees at a higher overall cost to do the same amount of work. Or they’ll have to pay overtime. Or they’ll simply do less business. Most companies will pass on increased costs to customers, including Americans in other states. Workers will have more leisure but at the cost of less efficiency and a lower standard of living.
As is often the case with bad economic ideas, France enshrined a 35-hour workweek in 2000. The thinking was that by forcing everyone to work less, more people would be hired. But it hasn’t turned out that way, as French unemployment remains high. Most advanced economies have a 40-hour workweek. The U.K. doesn’t even have a legal limit.
Supporters say the 32-hour workweek is no big deal because it would apply only to employers with more than 500 workers. But those companies employ more than half of California’s workers, and small businesses they contract with could eventually be swept in under the state’s joint-employer doctrine.
While the bill may not pass immediately, California is an incubator of progressive ideas that are often taken up by Democrats elsewhere. Single-payer healthcare, a millionaire’s tax, and climate cap and trade all started in Sacramento. And sure enough, California Rep. Mark Takano has already introduced a bill to mandate a 32-hour workweek nationwide.
Why do progressives think any idea they come up with has to be imposed by political coercion? You know the answer. Because they believe in their superior moral virtue, and they like to order other people around.