Michelle Barton is an associate professor at the Johns Hopkins Carey Business School. A previous version of this article listed her as an adjunct professor. The article has been corrected.
“Our workplace right now is kind of gone through just such a transformational change, adapting to covid, with some people working from home, with people experimenting with virtual and … with employers trying to figure out what their workplace needs are,” said Maryland state Sen. Shelly Hettleman (D-Baltimore County), a lead bill sponsor. “Looking at the Great Resignation, I think people are looking to do work differently and so I think it’s a perfect time to do this.”
Companies in several European countries and some businesses in the United States have embraced the idea. Iceland led the way with several large-scale trials about two years ago. Since then, companies in Belgium and the United Kingdom have participated in a pilot program by 4 Day Week Global, an advocacy group based in New Zealand.
Longtime proponents of shorter workweeks, including the Association for Sustainable Democracy (ALDA) in Iceland, along with Autonomy, a U.K.-based organization, and 4 Day Week Global, have all released studies from trials showing improvements in stress, burnout, health and overall well-being of employees. While proponents have laid out the benefits, others have expressed concern about costs and the productivity of employees working fewer hours for the same amount of pay.
The Maryland bill will get its first hearing in the Senate early next month. Hettleman and Del. Vaughn Stewart (D-Montgomery), the lead bill sponsor in the House, said the bill has garnered a lot of attention in Annapolis from lawmakers and lobbyists — some of whom said their clients would be interested in offering a shorter workweek — but its fate remains uncertain.
While some smaller companies, mostly in tech, in the United States have moved toward offering a shorter workweek, the idea has not become mainstream.
A California bill that would have required companies with 500 or more employees to pay overtime to employees who worked over 32 hours a week stalled last year. In 2021, U.S. Rep. Mark Takano (D-Calif.) introduced a similar bill to change the workweek standard to 32 hours.
The last time the workweek was adjusted in the United States was in 1940.
The Fair Labor Standards Act, passed in 1938, set the minimum workweek standard at 44 hours. It was revised in 1940 to 40 hours.
In 1956, during a reelection campaign stop, then-Vice President Richard M. Nixon predicted that a four-day workweek was in the “not too distant future,” as part of the GOP administration’s economic policies.
Under the Maryland bill, the Department of Labor would administer a pilot program that would allow companies to claim a credit against the state income tax for an amount that would be set by the department. The five-year program would be available to both private and public employers with 30 or more employees. To earn a tax credit, a company would have to participate in the program for a year.
Stewart said he is hopeful that a few companies will consider this novel approach to doing business. Unlike California’s bill and the measure introduced in Congress, the Maryland proposal is not mandated.
“We’re hoping that this tax credit makes it more realistic that not just sort of tech companies can do this, but that companies across the sort of blue to white collar spectrum experiment with it because it is a leap of faith,” he said.
Michelle Barton, an associate professor at the Johns Hopkins Carey Business School, welcomed a study of who benefits from reducing hours, but cautioned that the drivers of burnout are more complex than time worked.
Lesser hours is not a “silver bullet … because so much of what leads to burnout and stress and lack of engagement on the job doesn’t change just because you reduce the number of days there,” she said. “The one thing that potentially a four-day workweek could do at least directly is reduce the workload. But I don’t know that that’s really what organizations are thinking about. I think the idea is can we get as much done in 32 hours as we previously got done in 40 hours?”
Along with administering the program, the state Department of Labor would encourage participation in the program and gather data about their experience. The bill proposes spending a total of $750,000 in tax credits annually. It also calls for the governor to allocate $250,000 for fiscal years 2025 through 2028 to the Department of Labor to administer and publicize the program.
“I’d make the argument, and I’d have to do more research on this, but I think it could pay for itself,” Hettleman said. “If you have increased productivity, you have less turnover, you have … companies which generate more money for the state. So it has a potential to pay for itself, if not more.”
Stewart said that based on the feedback he has received he is optimistic that there is support for the bill among both employers and employees.
His concern is the cost.
“I think the real opposition of the bill is not necessarily people don’t think this would be a nice thing to study. I think the vast majority, my colleagues on both sides of the aisle, would agree that it would be great if we could study the viability of this kind of idea,” Stewart said. “I think the real limitation is just going to be dollars, and we may have to negotiate exactly how much money we get in tax credit in order to pull this off.”
Emily Guskin contributed to this report.