By Caitlin Dewey | Stateline, an initiative of The Pew Charitable Trust.
The Original Oyster House, billed as Pittsburgh’s oldest restaurant, found itself in crisis during the pandemic. Down to seven employees — including owner Jen Grippo and her mother — the staff worked six or seven days a week to keep up with orders. Grippo closed the Oyster House entirely in January 2021, determined to give herself and her staff a much-needed pause.
But when they returned to work, the workers’ stressors remained. Enter a radical — and increasingly popular — solution: the four-day work schedule.
The restaurant now opens from Wednesday to Saturday, and full-time employees work only 32 hours unless they choose to pick up extra shifts. Grippo pays employees for their extra time off. She also saves money on food and utilities, and everyone’s happier for it.
One staff member, who has worked at the restaurant for 23 years, used his first three-day weekend to finally see a Pittsburgh Penguins hockey game, Grippo recalled.
“It’s a beautiful thing,” Grippo said. “They’re all significantly more well-rested — and quite frankly, more productive.”
As lawmakers and businesses across the country reconsider the future of post-pandemic work, experiences like that of the Original Oyster House may serve as promising examples.
In the past three years, at least six states — California, Hawaii, Maryland, New York, Pennsylvania and Washington — have considered bills to mandate, incentivize or allow the switch to a four-day week. This month, U.S. Rep. Mark Takano, a California Democrat, also introduced a federal bill that would cap the week at 32 hours for hourly workers, requiring businesses to pay overtime above that threshold.
Bolstered by a recent, large-scale trial in the United Kingdom, proponents argue that shorter workweeks benefit both employees and employers. Workers are happier and more efficient when given rest time, those studies found. That in turn improves businesses’ culture, retention and recruitment efforts.
But despite decades of debate, dating back to before the standardization of the 40-hour week in 1938, U.S. legislative proposals to shift schedules en masse have largely stalled. Few Republicans have signed on to the idea, arguing the switch would be unfriendly to businesses. Skeptics also question how a shorter week would function in industries as disparate as farming and health care, and how much the switch might cost.
“This idea of ‘let’s incentivize experimentation’ — I quite like that,” said Matthew Bidwell, a professor of management at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. “But I can’t see the idea of mandating [a four-day workweek] going anywhere.”
‘A Win-Win-Win Scenario’
While the concept of a four-day week may seem like a radical shift for full-time American workers — 84% of whom clock in five days a week — U.S. lawmakers have floated the idea of a shorter schedule since at least 1933.
In 1956, then-Vice President Richard Nixon predicted that a universal four-day week would arrive in “the not-too-distant future.” And in the decades since, worker surveys consistently have shown that the vast majority of American workers would prefer a shorter workweek, said Kate Lister, the president of Global Workplace Analytics, a consulting firm that helps businesses navigate the future of work.
Employees have never had the power to demand those types of schedule changes, however — a dynamic that reversed somewhat during the widespread upheaval and labor shortages of the COVID-19 pandemic. A 2022 survey by the Pew Research Center found that 45% of people who left a job the previous year considered a lack of flexibility around “when to put in hours” a major factor in their decision to quit. (The Pew Research Center, like Stateline, is funded by The Pew Charitable Trusts.)
“We’re having a serious problem attracting employees, because no one wants to work on a traditional schedule here,” said Hawaii state Sen. Chris Lee, a Democrat, who co-sponsored a bill that would create a task force to study four-day weeks for public employees.
“But the intent,” he added, “is to facilitate the evolution of … both the public and private sectors.”
At the same time, the four-day workweek has gained momentum in other countries, providing a new model for the United States. Belgium, Scotland and Spain have embraced versions of the four-day week during the COVID-19 pandemic; so too have divisions of major corporations Canon and Unilever, as well as smaller companies such as Kickstarter and Bolt in the U.S.
Earlier this month, the world’s largest trial run of the four-day workweek — which tracked 61 British companies and nearly 3,000 employees over six months in 2022 — found that a vast majority of both employers and employees preferred the shortened schedule, with all but five firms electing to keep the change beyond the study period.
The pilot, organized by the advocacy group 4 Day Week Global in collaboration with academic and independent researchers, required that participating companies continue to pay their employees’ full, 40-hour salaries after making the switch.
“I read that study and thought, ‘Man, this type of experiment could really be a win-win-win scenario,’” said Maryland state Del. Vaughn Stewart, a Democrat, who worked with 4 Day Week Global on legislation proposing that his state try a four-day week incentive program of its own. The program would have allowed companies to claim a tax credit if they moved at least 30 employees from five- to four-day workweeks.
“It makes employees’ lives richer, it makes employers’ profits fatter, and it makes society as a whole more engaged and civic-minded.”
Earlier this month, Stewart withdrew the bill in favor of a budget appropriation that would direct the state Department of Labor to study the four-day workweek.
In terms of its scope and intensity, Stewart’s original proposal falls toward the middle of four-day workweek bills. Such measures can vary in which types of employees and companies they cover, how they define a four-day workweek and whether they incentivize or mandate the switch. Those decisions largely determine the costs and benefits for employers, said Annie Miller, an employment policy analyst at the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Hazel Gavigan, a spokesperson for 4 Day Week Global, told Stateline the group encourages interested governments to begin with pilot programs before legislating more permanent changes. The Maryland bill, for instance, would have piloted a temporary tax credit for businesses with more than 30 employees that tried out a 32-hour week for at least one year. A trio of Pennsylvania Democrats plan to introduce similar legislation in April.
“From the research we’ve done, most of the versions of the four-day workweek are either a mandate or do not provide sufficient incentives to the businesses,” Pennsylvania state Rep. Dave Madsen, a co-sponsor of the forthcoming bill, said by email. “That is why I believe a pilot program is integral to the implementation of this program.”
Some legislators have gone much further, however. Takano’s federal legislation, introduced March 1 with the support of several major labor unions, would redefine the standard workweek for hourly workers and require employers to pay overtime beyond that 32-hour limit. Similar measures have been proposed in California, New York and Washington state.
Such mandates likely would require businesses to hire more employees in industries that require around-the-clock staffing, such as emergency medical services and public transit, as well as in industries that demand a high degree of client- or patient-facing work, Bidwell said.
In an interview with the BBC, an executive who pulled his industrial supplies company out of the U.K. pilot said he couldn’t afford to staff the extra people he found the firm needed under a four-day schedule.
Concerns over cost and implementation help explain why, despite growing interest, four-day workweek bills have repeatedly faltered. Last year alone, state bills in California, Hawaii and New York, as well as a prior version of Takano’s federal bill, died in committee with little fanfare.
Utah, which pioneered a shortened week for state employees in 2008, has since rolled the policy back, citing citizen complaints and smaller savings than expected.
More recently in Maryland, Stewart’s incentive program faced skepticism even from fellow Democrats, who voiced concerns about the program’s annual cost — nearly $1 million — and its sharp departure from convention. He still considers the bill a success.
“This got way more attention from my colleagues, the media and regular folks than I’ve received on all the legislation I’ve proposed in the past five years combined,” said Stewart. “I feel really confident that it’s only a matter of when, not if, Maryland and other states move rapidly toward a future with less work.”
New Options for Workers
Beyond cost and implementation, opponents of the four-day week — and even some supporters — have questioned whether a one-size-fits-all approach will benefit all employees and firms. Proponents argue that, unlike remote or hybrid work, the four-day workweek will benefit white- and blue-collar employees alike.
But it may prove easier for office workers to condense their days by eliminating meetings, for instance, or doing fewer personal tasks during the day than for people working in warehouses or factories.
Workers also vary in how and how much they want to work, said Lister, the workplace consultant. Recent surveys by her firm show that, while most employees say they’d like a shorter workweek, that preference is strongest among the wealthiest, mid-career workers. In four-day pilots, some employees have experienced greater stress and burnout as they cram 40 hours of work into 32 hours, often under the eye of distrustful managers.
“When we look at the data on who wants to work where and how often, it’s dramatically different in California than in Texas than in New York, or in the tech industry versus the health care industry or government,” Lister said. “One size fits none. So, forced flexibility isn’t going to work anywhere.”
Instead, Lister suggests that employers offer a suite of options, including remote and hybrid work, flexible scheduling and four-day workweeks. Incentive programs also can nudge businesses to try arrangements they wouldn’t otherwise attempt — and cancel them in case of unforeseen complications.
Some state legislators already have taken that looser approach: A bill introduced this year in Maine would provide protections for public and private employees who request a “flexible work schedule,” including irregular hours and remote or hybrid work. New Jersey lawmakers are considering a new program that would reward employers for offering “flexible work arrangements.”
Unlike other recent four-day week bills, the proposed legislation in New Jersey and Maine both have attracted Republican and independent co-sponsors.
For her part, Grippo, the Pittsburgh restaurant owner, tends to favor an approach that lets individual workers and workplaces choose for themselves. She polled her staff to make sure they supported moving to a four-day week and still encourages them to reach out if that schedule becomes inconvenient.
“It works for us — I don’t know if it will work for other people. It’s business to business,” Grippo said. “But obviously, I would say give it a try. I know we’re never going back.”