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The Bay Street sign in the heart of the financial district in Toronto on May 22, 2008.Mark Blinch/Reuters

Todd Hirsch is a former Calgary-based chief economist of ATB Financial and the author of The Boiling Frog Dilemma: Saving Canada from Economic Decline.

The idea of a four-day work week is once again being bandied about, after the pandemic opened up whole new concepts of what, where and when work should be done.

The notion of a legislated shorter work week for the same pay isn’t new – it’s been around for decades. Research shows that it would make workers happier, more productive and healthier.

But while there’s little doubt that workers stand to gain, one has to ask: Which workers? Would the benefits be spread evenly among the work force? Or might there be unintended consequences that would create even greater social inequality?

The biggest beneficiaries are those workers who already have significant control over their time. These tend to be higher-paid knowledge workers – ones with paid sick leave, flex days, paid vacations and other time-related benefits. This isn’t to suggest these workers don’t work hard and long hours, but they generally have greater say over when and where they got their work done.

An even larger group of workers don’t fall into this category. They tend to be part-time workers in the “gig economy,” concentrated in industries such as food and accommodation, health care, retail services and personal care. They’re required to be on site, meaning they can’t just duck out during the day to run a few errands. Their income tends to be precarious. They are often required to be “on call” – meaning that they’re tethered to their phones in case they are needed at work.

These workers often receive low pay, requiring them to cobble together more than one job in order to get by. They might spend more time on transportation getting from job to job, which are unpaid hours. The idea of a “weekend” to rest and recharge may simply not exist.

If four-day work weeks become the norm, the highest paid workers, who already enjoy greater control over their time, would benefit disproportionately, while the lowest paid and most vulnerable workers may see little to no benefit at all.

The solution should not be to limit time benefits for the high-income earners. Rather, we need to find ways to lift up and support low-income earners. Changing laws and regulations around sick pay, maternity leave and paid time off for training might be a good place to start. Employers could also voluntarily improve conditions and offer more favourable benefits around time off. Finally, workers themselves might find ways to advocate for better working conditions and benefits around time away.

But in the meantime, the trend is solidly in favour of those workers who have the ability to schedule their work around their lives. This flexibility in how and when work is accomplished is a luxury. The gap between high-income and low-income workers has been troubling enough. The added benefit of being able to work when and where it is convenient could widen the gap even more.

And that’s a serious problem. Without some solutions to narrow the gap, the luxury of time could intensify social tensions, which are already threatening to erode the foundations of our society and democracy.