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The problem with telling Americans to work less

Americans don't like working long, grueling hours—but many can't afford to do anything else.


Nico Lang


Posted on Jun 24, 2015   Updated on May 28, 2021, 12:07 pm CDT

My grandmother is a living, breathing Loretta Lynn song: After leaving her no-good husband, she raised three children by working long hours as a waitress in a bowling alley. She would often log over 80 hours a week, and when I asked her how that was even possible, she told me that she would often go in at 9am and stay well past midnight—five or six days each week. My grandmother worked those shifts for years, barely making time to see the kids she was killing herself to feed.

Women like my grandmother are often lionized by politicians who extol the virtues of the American work ethic. During a 2005 speech, George W. Bush famously congratulated Mary Mornin, an Omaha divorcée with three kids, on the menial employment she juggles to make ends meet: “You work three jobs? Uniquely American, isn’t it? I mean, that is fantastic that you’re doing that.”

I thought of my grandmother and Mary Mornin when I watched the video from a recent Atlantic interview with Ryan Carson, the CEO of Treehouse, who advocates for a 32-hour workweek for all American employees. Since instituting four-day weeks at his company, Carson has found workers to be more productive and less stressed, making Treehouse’s work culture sustainable in the long-term.

“If you put them in a race with someone for one month, and one works 60-hour weeks, and one works 32, then yes, the person who worked 60 hours is going to get more done in that one month,” Carson told the Washington Post in February. “How about in 12 months? How about in seven years?”

But the problem with Carson’s mandate is that it only benefits a certain type of employee: the kinds of white-collar workers on his payroll. Ryan Carson explained that he instituted the policy in response to Silicon Valley’s rampant workaholism, in which salaried workers are often asked to work overtime without compensation for it. In his own experience working for a startup, Richard Feloni of Business Insider explains that “[Carson] was regularly delirious with exhaustion from a few hours of nightly sleep and was frustrated with his output.”

Anyone even remotely familiar with the Bay Area’s startup culture knows that this is a disturbing norm in the industry. During an interview for a position in Silicon Valley, Forbes writer Joscelin Cooper was told she would be expected to work 55 to 60 hours a week minimum, but most weeks she ended up working more than 70. While this is often viewed as a recent trend, the San Francisco Chronicle reported in 2001 that 80 hours a week had become the new normal among tech workers, but that’s nothing—today, some of Google’s employees actually live at work.

But the problem with Carson’s mandate is that it only benefits a certain type of employee: the kinds of white-collar workers on his payroll. 

But perhaps the most telling thing is that when Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg revealed that he only works between 50 and 60 hours a week, many were shocked. How can he work so little? The irony is astounding.

This isn’t just a Silicon Valley problem but a greater issue of U.S. work culture, where we make exploited workers into anecdotes about the triumph of the American spirit, like in the Bush speech above. However, the reality is less romantic—and potentially fatal.

In their coverage of the recent minimum wage protests, reporter Dialynn Dwyer spoke to Sabrina Johnson, a Dorchester, Massachusetts woman who works three jobs to support her family, as well a mother with a disability. Her story is a fairly typical one, emblematic of the sad state of the American Dream in 2015. Dwyer writes:

Her days often begin at 6am. She commutes to Chipotle in Harvard Square, where she works on the line and as a cashier. Her shift can start anywhere between 8am and 10am Tuesday through Thursday, she works at Chipotle until 4:30pm, then she travels back to Dorchester and to work her five-and-a-half-hour shift as a medical assistant.

When she works at Chipotle Friday through Monday, she has to leave Chipotle by 2pm to get to her airport shift at 4pm, where she works until 12:30 am, or until the last flight.

On those weekends when she works at both Chipotle and the airport, she often only gets five hours of sleep.

In 2014, the New York Times profiled Maria Fernandes, a New Jersey wife and mother who worked at three different Dunkin’ Donuts. “She often slept in her car—two hours here, three hours there—and usually kept the engine running, ready in an instant to start all over again,” writes the Times’ Rachel L. Swarns. On Monday, August 25 of last year, however, she phoned her husband before nodding off in a convenience store parking lot, hoping to get the precious few hours of sleep her day afforded her. She didn’t wake up.

After her death, Dunkin’ Donuts spokespeople held her up as a “model” worker, which is perhaps the crux of the problem. While it’s easy call Maria Fernandes and Mary Mornin heroes—because they are—it’s not the amount of hours they work that’s worth worshipping. There’s little dignity afforded to the low-paid American worker, and the daily realities of little sleep with even less reward are actually killing them.

While they need help, the 30-hour workweek alone isn’t the answer to their problems. Sabrina Johnson doesn’t work seven days a week because of interoffice pressure but because she has no other choice. My grandmother would have loved a three-day weekend to spend more time with her children, but that’s simply not an option for a single divorcée who didn’t graduate high school. Her only resources were those afforded by the nation’s paltry wages for tipped employees, which has remained more or less stagnant for the last 20 years. It’s currently $3.93 in Cincinnati, Ohio, the city she calls home.

The San Francisco Chronicle reported in 2001 that 80 hours a week had become the new normal among tech workers, but that’s nothing—today, some of Google’s employees actually live at work.

The Times reports that when Maria Fernandes died, her Dunkin’ Donuts jobs were compensating her just $8.25 an hour, the rate New Jersey has designated as the minimum wage for its workers. If she were to work 30 hours a week, she would make just $247 a week—and that’s before taxes. The Ryan Carson plan is hardly what she needed.

While advocates of the 30-hour workweek say that it should coincide with a raise in the minimum wage for all workers—such as advocated by the #FightFor15 movement—but that still doesn’t afford many of the lowest-earning Americans a living wage.

According to the MIT Living Wage Calculator, if my grandmother were raising three kids in Cincinnati today, she would have to earn $24.30 an hour at 40 hours a week. If her hours were reduced to 30 a week, she would need to make an even higher $30.96 per hour. That figure is slightly more than twice the $15 an hour minimum wage Los Angeles recently approved for its residents, and that doesn’t even take effect until 2020.

This matters, as single mothers are disproportionately likely to be below the poverty line, and any meaningful wage reform must address the needs of those who most need our attention. While Ryan Carson is right to be worried about his employees’ welfare, the buck simply doesn’t stop with fretting about high paid Silicon Valley workers being able to lean out. Work-life balance isn’t just about vacations: It’s about having the benefits, government support, social programs, community resources, and basic income to be able to enjoy the little amount of free time afforded you.

While Ryan Carson works 30 hours a week, the rest of the country is still trying to fight for every hour they can. That’s not noble. It’s the sobering reality of America in 2015.

Nico Lang is the Opinion Editor for the Daily Dot.

Photo via Sjoerd Lammers street photography/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

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*First Published: Jun 24, 2015, 6:32 pm CDT