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    The movement to reduce the work week from five to four days


    Russ Francis

    Thousands of BC Government employees are already halfway to a 4-day work week.

     

    NOT EVERYONE IS WILDLY ENTHUSIASTIC about chopping the normal work week to four days from five, as recently promoted by New Zealand Labour Prime Minister Jacinda Adern.

    While not rejecting it outright, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was decidedly non-committal when asked about the idea on May 27.  Other priorities, etc.

    Former BC Green Party leader Andrew Weaver, now an independent MLA, pulled fewer punches than Trudeau, calling it on Twitter “an absolutely kooky idea.” His exclamation was in response to comments supporting the four-day week from current Green house leader Sonia Furstenau and acting leader Adam Olsen. Weaver’s comments were in part just the surfacing of long-simmering tensions within the formerly Weaver-led Green caucus.

    The right-leaning Fraser Institute released a June 3 statement that prima facie supported the four-day work week. Well, kind of.

    First, it would take till 2030.

    Second, it would require workers to work harder, or to use the popular euphemism, increase “productivity.” The release didn’t discuss the fact that, as previously observed by the Fraser Institute itself, labour productivity is highly dependent on companies’ investments in machinery, equipment and intellectual property. And that investment has declined in Canada in recent years, as company after company used their spare cash to buy back their own shares—boosting the share price—rather than invest in anything that would help their staff.

    Premier John Horgan, asked June 4 by a Global News reporter about the Fraser Institute release, was at best lukewarm, saying only that “nothing should be off the table.”

    BC Labour Minister Harry Bains also managed to restrain his excitement at the prospect, in a statement sent to Focus June 19. His government “fully supports creative ideas about how to ensure workers can balance work with other obligations,” he said in the statement. In fact, there’s nothing to stop employers and workers voluntarily switching to a four-day week.

    To claim the government is “supporting creative ideas” may be a way of saying: “No, we will not change the Employment Standards Act or its regulations, to make compulsory this work-life balance that the government ‘fully supports.’”

    In the case of New Zealand, a principal motivation was to boost domestic tourism. Having to all intents and purposes defeated COVID-19, the country is carefully but persistently re-opening its economy. As of June 15, overseas tourists remained banned. However, Australia and New Zealand are cautiously considering a proposal to create a “trans-Tasman COVID-safe travel zone,” which would permit back and forth travel between the two countries.

    How could a four-day week help domestic tourism? On a five-day week, too often Saturday is spent catching up with chores, shopping, etc. And Sundays can easily be taken up in preparing for the next work week or visiting in-town family. No time to travel far.

    In pre-COVID-19 days, it was not uncommon for New Zealanders to travel overseas, known as getting “OE” (overseas experience), before seeing more than a handful of their own country’s sights. The hope is that a four-day week will restore interest in Kiwis seeing more of their own country—which after all, is a few steps above the moonscape of New Jersey in aesthetic qualities.

    As well, some research indicates four-day weeks provide for a better work-life balance, will likely create more jobs, and reduce worker stress, while increasing productivity.

    Kooky or not, it’s now in effect at several Canadian workplaces.

    On June 15, the municipality of Guysborough, Nova Scotia, began a nine-month pilot project that put its staff on a four-day week, partly as a way of reducing commuting time and partly to boost morale.

    Closer to home, administrative staff in the offices of the BC Government and Service Employees’ Union (BCGEU) already have it, says union president Stephanie Smith. When the staff requested a four-day work week, the BCGEU promptly agreed and implemented it.

     

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    BC Government and Service Employees’ Union President Stephanie Smith

     

    What about a four-day week for the union’s 31,000 members who work for the Province?

    Smith said in an interview that if government workers asked for it, the union would back them, noting that in her experience the arrangement boosts morale and productivity. “We take our direction from the members,” Smith says, adding that no such request has come forward to date.

    In one sense, however, thousands of BC government employees are already halfway there: They get every second Friday or Monday off at full pay, under a longstanding arrangement between the government and the BCGEU.

    Known informally as providing for “flex days,” the nine-day fortnight is highly popular. So entrenched is it in government culture that the intransitive verb flex has been awarded a new sui generis meaning. This neologism, not yet in the Oxford Canadian Dictionary, is a commonplace in government lunch rooms, as in: “I flex this Friday.”

    In exchange for the biweekly day off, on each of the other nine days employees are required to work an extra 47 minutes longer than the standard seven-hour government work day. The total time worked each week still averages 35 hours. However, as one longtime government worker explained about the extra-time requirement for the other nine days: “Nobody’s counting.”

    Though widespread in the BC government, the flextime arrangement is not guaranteed. It is only upon agreement between the union and employer; management at some ministries, divisions and worksites do not permit it.

    Flexing was never intended for managers—the so-called “excluded” staff. Unionized workers, offered a promotion to a non-union management job, have been known to turn down the promotion on the grounds that they would no longer receive flex days.

    In one large ministry, many managers did in fact receive flex days, a special perk that was not widely known outside the ministry. When the word finally did reach the higher echelons about 10 years ago, a new deputy minister was brought in to end the practice and other questionable parts of that ministry’s culture.

    Nice try: In unison, the flexing managers rebelled. The new deputy was forced to back down, and before long, he was shipped out to another ministry.

    It is plain that the central government has at best mixed feelings about the flex-day arrangement, which does not bode well for the chances of a regular four-day week.

    During the last bargaining round, which ultimately led to the current 2019-2022 collective agreement, government representatives wanted to end flextime for staff in the Ministry of Social Development and Poverty Reduction.

    Came the reply from staff negotiators: No way. The government dropped it.

    Businessman and researcher Andrew Barnes, based in both the UK and New Zealand, is an energetic advocate of the four-day week, and funded 4 Day Week Global Foundation to promote it throughout the world.

    In 2018 Barnes used the 240 staff of New Zealand’s Perpetual Guardian estate planning company—which he heads—as research subjects for a study of the four-day week.

    Though Barnes formerly believed that longer work hours meant better business outcomes, his research found otherwise. Working fewer hours resulted in more work getting done, in part by cutting meetings, eliminating open plan offices (BC Government: take note), and reducing social media use.

    The employees benefitted in numerous ways. The gender gap shrunk, staff were happier, and commuted less frequently. Yet productivity jumped 20 percent and company profits grew.

    The BC government’s apparent hesitancy about even the flex-day agreement is likely due in part to the fact that it makes arranging meetings more challenging. Managers know full well that two days every week are off-limits when it comes to organizing most meetings or teleconferences. Since on any given Friday or Monday many staff may be taking flex days, only Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays are available.

    Less opportunity for mostly useless meetings, primarily taken up with reminiscing about the previous meeting, anticipating the next one, idle chat, and socializing? Quelle horreur!

     

    Russ Francis, who worked for 10 years in the provincial government, appreciates BCGEU president Stephanie Smith’s sardonic suggestions to hold a meeting to examine why there are so many meetings, and to set up a committee to study the large number of committees.

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