BY GREG MORTON
ANNAPOLIS, Md. – On March 30, 2020, amid a national emergency and rising numbers of COVID-19 cases in Maryland, then-Gov. Larry Hogan issued an executive order mandating most workers stay home to mitigate the virus’s spread.
As other states were issuing similar shutdown orders, and businesses and workers were forced to adapt to a new normal, suddenly the nation was forced to collectively re-examine the nature of work.
Now, with the pandemic economic emergency mostly in the rear-view mirror following an economic recovery that has seen unemployment sink to the lowest levels in 50 years and labor force participation rates boosted to near pre-pandemic levels, businesses face a new set of challenges: attracting and retaining workers in a red hot labor market.
A new bill introduced in the Maryland House of Delegates aims to give private businesses a new tool to attract and retain workers: a new vision for the work week.
The bill, HB 0181, introduced by Del. Vaughn Stewart, D-Montgomery, would allow private businesses to opt into a four-day, 32-hour work week pilot program that would include technical assistance from the Maryland Department of Labor and a tax credit of up to $10,000 in exchange for their participation in a study of the program’s success.
The new, shorter work week proposed by the bill would represent a departure from the standard five-day, 40-hour work week established through a 1940 amendment to the Fair Labor Standards Act. Drawing on success stories from companies that have adopted the four-day work week since the pandemic, the bill’s objective is to give more businesses the flexibility to try it out for themselves.
“The reality is that it is less about how long you work for and more about the way in which you work,” said Joe O’Connor, director of the Work Time Reduction Center of Excellence during his testimony in favor of the bill. O’Conner is also former CEO of 4 Day Work Week Global, an organization that conducted a four-day work week trial program that provided some foundational data for this bill.
In the company’s trial program, which included over 25 companies in the U.S. and Ireland, 97% of workers said they wanted to continue the four-day work week.
“This is something that organizations that I’ve worked with describe as a forcing function. They describe it as the cheapest and most efficient process improvement strategy that they’ve ever deployed. And why? Because the incentive for employees is so life changing, that it aligns the interest of the individual employees with the objectives of the business in a way that is more powerful than almost any other policy,” O’Connor said in support of the bill.
While the idea of a four-day work week predates the pandemic, the fallout from COVID-19 and the rise of remote work has opened the door to non-traditional work situations. According to a 2022 McKinsey survey, 58% of Americans had the opportunity to work from home at least one day a week and 35% reported that they had the opportunity to work from home 5 days a week. 45% of remote workers experienced improved job quality according to a 2020 Gallup poll.
John Byrne, CEO of Baltimore-based software company Tricerot, which had a policy in place to allow workers to work some days from home before the pandemic popularized the practice, said that Tricerat adopted the four-day work week in part as a response to concerns over work-life balance and burnout from workers bearing the mental weight of living through a global pandemic and struggling to adapt to a new normal at work.
“People were, with this constant work from home, losing their ability to delineate between work and private and personal life,” he said.
Byrne also noted that some of the greatest benefits have been in terms of worker mental health and job satisfaction.
“We’ve had decent results with retention, employee satisfaction is very high. Morale is very high. We’ve had a reduction in things like sick days,” he said.
Stewart, in his pitch to the House Economic Matters Committee on Tuesday, called the plan a “game changer in terms of recruitment and also keeping the workers there,” and encouraged delegates to abandon their preconceived notions about “what may sound exotic and provocative and utopian.”
Still, some on the Economic Matters Committee remained skeptical of the plan.
Del. Mark Fisher, R-Calvert, questioned whether the pilot program was fair, framing the subsidies for businesses that adopt a four-day work week as punishing the tax-paying small businesses that choose to abide by the traditional five-day, 40-hour-a-week schedule.
“It’s all unicorns and pots of gold, from what we’re hearing,” he said, arguing that this should not be a legislative issue at all. He also warned that the subsidy could be “punitive” for small businesses who choose not to adopt a shortened week.