Has the time come for an alternative work week?

Holly J. Culhane SPHR
May 1, 2009 — 1,958 views  
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If you're older than 30, get set to take a short trip down memory lane; if you're younger than 30, settle in for a history lesson that is as relevant as today's headlines.  Those who remember the 1970s, will remember the pain of the oil crisis during that decade.  Prompted by an oil embargo imposed by OAPEC (Organization of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries) on October 17, 1973, America and other Western nations were plunged into an energy crisis.  Not only did the price of gasoline at the pump and heating oil soar, there were intense shortages of fuel.  The federal government stepped in and set national guidelines to deal with the scarcity experienced by the entire country, which resulted in rationing and long lines at gas stations, with the lines sometimes stretching for several blocks.  In the United States, gas was sold to customers depending on the final digit of their license plate.  For example, if your license plate ended in an even number, you could only purchase gas on even-numbered days of the month; license plates ending in odd numbers purchased on odd-numbered days.  (No, those with vanity license plates didn't get to skate, they were included with the even-numbered days!)  Some gas stations limited the amount of fuel customers could purchase at any one time, and often stations would simply run out of fuel and would post red flags announcing they were out of gas, but open for other services.

Nightmarish?  Yes!  But it didn't stop there.  In 1974, in an effort to reduce fuel consumption, Congress set the national speed limit at 55 miles per hour (mph).  (Yes, really!)  And this law remained in effect for over 20 years until it was repealed in 1995.
One of the big differences between the 1970s oil crisis, and the one we are facing today is the fact there truly were shortages then, as well as the higher prices.  Today, while presently we still appear to have sufficient resources, prices have skyrocketed to ridiculous rates.  (In 1974 the price of oil quickly increased from $3/per barrel to $12/per barrel, resulting in the average rate at the pump rising from 38 cents to 55 cents per gallon.  Who would have ever guessed then that we'd someday be paying as much per gallon as we used to pay for an entire barrel of crude!)

Another change in the 1970s?  A number of businesses instituted the 4-day work week to help employees reduce the working commute.  One friend was working at a large organization that tried this "experiment" in the 1970s, converting from a traditional 5-day/8-hour to a 4-day/10-hour work week.  Happily, it resulted in a win-win for everyone!  The customers loved it because the business was still open Monday through Friday, but had extended daily hours.  The employees were happy because they had a 3-day weekend every week (some employees worked Monday through Thursday, others Tuesday through Friday).  The company benefited with higher productivity, fewer absences, and more satisfied customers and employees.  (Just a side note, the organization has grown into a multi-national corporation and still operates on a 4-day work week.)

Now, here we are 35 years later facing a new energy crisis, and once more everyone, including employers, is looking for solutions to minimize the negative effects.  For one thing, carpooling can offer a bit of relief and help share fuel costs while providing companionship on the daily commute.  Additionally, people are becoming more environmentally-conscious now that it's affecting their pocketbooks, and many are taking the entire "reduce, re-use, recycle" mantra to heart.  Vehicles are becoming more fuel efficient and government and entrepreneurs alike are researching alternative fuels and energy methods. 

On a television news segment recently, reporters were exploring the 4-day work week option.  In interviews conducted in various cities throughout the country, they spoke with individuals whose organizations had recently converted in an effort to provide relief to employees.  One person described a daily 60-mile commute (one-way) and the advantages of saving 20% on gas, wear-and-tear on her vehicle, time-savings for herself, and health benefits resulting from an extra day spent out of polluted air on the busy highways.  The reporters also explored the savings that could result from sizeable numbers of people driving one day less per week and the effects on overall emissions and other air pollutants, as well as the impact on lessened traffic congestion, fewer vehicle accidents, and reduced impact to our roadways.   In July, USA Today reported effective August 4, 2008,  Utah became “the first state to institute a mandatory four-day work week for most state employees, joining local governments across the nation that are altering schedules to save money, energy and resources.”

Is the 4-day work week, or something similar, an option for your organization?  Remember, it doesn't necessarily mean your business is only open four days per week, it just provides an extra day for employees to avoid the stresses of commuting/working an extra day per week.  And, although space hasn't permitted it here, there are numerous requirements California employers must follow to properly implement such a work week.

Holly J. Culhane SPHR


Identified the need for human resource and organizational assistance for small- and medium-sized business­es and formed Profes­sional Administra­tive Systems in 1987. Now known as P A S Associates, this firm combines specialists in the fields of human resources, labor and employment law, affirma­tive action, and substance abuse policies and education, providing an unsurpassed Human Resource Center.