Jamie K. McCallum is a professor of sociology at Middlebury College and the author of Worked Over: How Round-the-Clock Work Is Killing the American Dream. You can follow him on Twitter @jamiekmccallum
Future historians will look back on this as a time when humanity had an opportunity to ask and answer a very important question: Why do we work so much?
It’s an especially pertinent question in the United States, where I live. In the 1950s, American workers put in fewer hours than their European counterparts. Not so any more. From 1975 to 2018, the work time of employed Americans increased about 13 per cent. Last year we logged about 400 hours more than the Germans and 100 more than Canadian workers, a difference of about five and two workweeks, respectively.
Most anecdotes of the overworked focus on salaried professionals, but the hours of low-wage workers have increased the most. And while they may be working more, stagnating wages, low union density and volatile, unpredictable schedules mean they can’t afford to work less. Many they still lack the hours they need to survive in the modern economy.
Six months into this forced experiment to redesign our jobs, the trend toward longer hours seems to have deepened. Those working from home offices today – their kitchen tables, beds and living room sofas – seem to work for longer durations and at weirder times.
Data on computer use collected by NordVPN found an increase of approximately three hours a day among American employees and a two-hour increase among Canadian workers. Another virtual-private-network provider, Surfshark, saw usage jump from midnight to 3 a.m. since March. Another study of more than three million workers at 20,000 companies found an average increase of almost an hour each day, although it varied by geographic location. Microsoft’s own data show hours up about 10 per cent – achieved by working through meals and later into the evening.
An influx of women into the paid labour market over the past five decades in the U.S. can explain a lot of the increase in hours that Americans work. But during the pandemic, women have scaled back their hours much more so than men. Mothers with young children reduced their work hours about four to five times more than fathers did, increasing the gender gap in work hours by 20 per cent to 50 per cent. And time is money: Working mothers will likely suffer a wage penalty into the future for leaving jobs or scaling back their labour market attachments now.
There’s ample evidence that the work-from-home schedule is punctuated by many “breaks” for both men and women in order to care for children or attend to household issues that simply cannot be stopped from breaking through the threadbare work-life barrier. In other words, what people are actually doing during all that “work time” remains somewhat of a mystery – though perhaps not for long.
Corporations seem very committed to expanding their remote workplace surveillance programs, which allow them to monitor and, in some cases, literally see what you’re doing and when you’re doing it – then pay or discipline you accordingly. Management has always snooped into the ways we work, but the explosion of remote work has incentivized bosses to step up their game. They’ve benefited from a new suite of tools designed to access your webcam, browser history, keystrokes and social-media use.
But they’re not just watching people work. While offices are not yet obsolete, many surveys predict a future of significant telecommuting possibilities for white-collar workers. Some of the same large employers who have advocated for such flexibility are also pushing anti-worker tech tools designed to stop labour unions from emerging in major companies such as Google, Facebook and Amazon.
This is deeply unfortunate because unions have saved countless lives during the pandemic and are essential to a healthy recovery. Research shows that unions are strongly associated with safer workplaces because union members are more empowered to advocate for stronger health and safety protocols on the job without fearing retaliation from management. Having on-the-ground activists for a better workplace has proved pivotal at key points in the crisis. New York teachers, for example, threatened a mass sickout last spring, as the city became an early epicentre of the disease. Their actions persuaded Mayor Bill de Blasio to close schools sooner than he had planned, a decision that helped avert an even larger public health catastrophe.
U.S. law does not regulate health and safety issues within home offices, but remote employees are fortunate in comparison with essential workers, who have been treated as if they are sacrificial. Workers in retail and grocery stores, warehouses and food services lacked access to necessary personal protective equipment, contributing to a 350-per-cent spike in workplace safety complaints. A paltry 10 per cent of them enjoy union protections.
Unions have historically been the main vehicle to secure better working hours. And here’s where Canadians have a big advantage: Canada’s union density is almost 20 per cent higher than it is in the U.S., giving its workers more of a voice in what their jobs look like. Workers in both countries desire union representation at almost the same rate, but U.S. employers and domestic labour laws make it much harder to organize.
The surge in hours in the U.S. and the effects it has had on our families and health is not a matter of great public debate. That must change. We should instead take this opportunity to remake the workplace writ large. It will help pull us out of the current crisis and limit the damage of the next one.
Americans must end their unrequited romance with the Protestant ethic. To do so, we could look to Canada for other policy fixes. In the U.S., millions of low-wage workers lost their health care as a result of losing their jobs amid the worst public health crisis in more than a century. There’s an urgent need to decouple health care from work, a policy change that would allow more workers to live healthier lives without work and/or pull back from jobs with high eligibility requirements for health insurance coverage.
There are a slew of other family-friendly policies that would allow parents to leave the labour market periodically and return without sacrificing their futures. Canadians enjoy greater access to paid sick leave and better parental leave, which these days don’t just translate into time off work – they save lives.
Occasionally these facts are recognized by elites as temporary solutions to an emergency. But they are exactly the policies that should be permanent features of our economy. Workers and their unions will be central to winning those reforms – or they won’t happen at all.
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