The costs of work

November 20th, 2019

Whether you’re listening to Dolly Parton sing about “working 9 to 5” or watching the GEICO commercial where a camel reminds everyone in the office that Wednesday is “Hump Day,” we tend to share certain cultural assumptions about what defines the “workweek.” While there have always been outliers amongst those who work the third shift or who are involved in medical care, the common days and hours for work — Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. — allowed for a common schedule. Time outside of these hours — weeknights, weekends, and federal holidays — were reserved for leisure, family time and other community involvement. Yet in recent years, our world has expanded these hours closer and closer to a full-time 24/7 cycle, and those rhythms are disappearing, resulting in a deleterious effect on our communities.

In the November issue of The Atlantic, Judith Shulevitz writes that this phenomenon affects both ends of the payscale. Those on the lower end of the labor market are piecing together multiple part-time jobs with fluctuating hours or are hustling to make ends meet in the so-called “gig economy.” Currently, nearly a fifth of Americans hold jobs with nonstandard or variable hours. To lower labor costs, many retail employers schedule employees using an algorithm that predicts demand but that also robs employees of a regular set schedule. Many employees reasonably expect to have to work nights, weekends and occasional overtime, but increasingly, employers are demanding schedule flexibility on their own terms. 

On the other side of the labor force, higher-paid salaried workers are consistently working longer and longer hours, with 92% of surveyed managers and professionals reporting that they put in 50 or more hours a week, according to a survey cited in Shulevitz’s Atlantic article. Technology and smartphones have made it more difficult to disconnect, and even when people are not actively working, they’re often monitoring their work. Competition to be the most responsive and available employee causes workers to put in more and more time with their jobs. 

The effect of profit motives on labor

The concept of the eight-hour workday emerged from the labor activism of the 19th century. In the 1880s, groups of laborers were pushing for a shorter work day — from ten hours to eight hours — in addition to better working conditions. The labor organizers gained traction with the popular slogan “Eight hours for work, eight hours for rest, and eight hours for what you will.” The success of collective bargaining and massive strikes ultimately resulted in labor winning a standard 40-hour work week.

Because labor is the most expensive line item in the budget of most companies, executives often look there first to make cuts when going in search of improved profits. In turn, any solution to our labor practices will need to be more than individuals simply choosing not to check email while on vacation. Instead, it will require communal action. Yet these same erratic scheduling practices undermine the opportunity for collective action. Some field organizers have struggled to involve low-income workers in meetings and rallies precisely because these workers don’t know their schedules in advance, The Atlantic reports.

However, there are some signals that the tide is turning, Shulevitz’s article suggests. Countries such as France and Italy have passed legislation mandating that employers negotiate periods off-the-clock when workers don’t have to respond to text messages or emails. Cities such as Seattle, New York and San Francisco have passed laws that require employers to give employees adequate notice of their schedule and require additional pay to employees if their employer fails to do so.

In August, a meeting of the Business Roundtable, a nonprofit association of chief executive officers from some of the largest companies in the United States, released a statement redefining the purpose of a corporation, saying that a company should promote “an economy that serves all Americans.” This signals a move away from shareholder primacy and toward a consideration of all stakeholders, including customers, employees, communities and the environment. Nevertheless, organizing laborers to advocate for legislation that protects their time is still necessary. 

The church and work

The local church, like other voluntary organizations, has seen the negative effects of the increasing demands on workers. As a minister, I have become more and more aware of those who cannot attend services on Sunday mornings because of their job requirements, not to mention the struggle of finding time to schedule committee meetings around long or unpredictable work hours. In the past, so-called “blue laws” kept Sundays from being a time of commerce; but Sunday is no longer culturally privileged as a day for Christian religious observance. Increased work demands during the week make it more appealing to skip church in lieu of resting, accomplishing household chores, or spending time with friends and family. As a side effect of these trends, church attendance and involvement become a luxury, something that many workers, particularly lower-income workers, aren’t able to do.

Ideally, the church proclaims a different message than the rest of our society about who and what are valued. We all need to hear that our value isn’t contingent upon our productivity or income. At its best, the local church is a more diverse group of people than we might normally associate with and one of the few places remaining of intergenerational community. While the church has a history of advocacy on behalf of workers, it also risks alienating workers when our pews are full of the very employers who exploit them and we remain silent.

The church can both help people push back on the demands of our society and accommodate the realities of unpredictable scheduling. While Sunday mornings might remain the primary gathering time, churches can offer other service times in the evenings or at midday during the week to provide worship opportunities for those who work on Sunday mornings. This present moment would also be a good time for the church to rediscover its history of advocating for fair wages and labor protections and even become a site for organizing and advocacy for protections around employees’ schedules for all kinds of workers. 

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