May Day: the Time for the 8-Hour-Day is Now

With workers all over the world, today we remember George Engel, Adolph Fischer, Albert Parsons, and August Spies, the labor heroes who were hung by the State of Illinois in 1887 for organizing the struggle for the eight hour workday. And although the names of the four other workers who were murdered by the Chicago police at the end of the May Day rally in 1886 are no longer known, these nameless men are also labor heroes whose sacrifices we commemorate.

1886 was a long time ago, yet in the US the struggle for the eight-hour workday is far from over. The average workweek for full-time workers in the US today is 47 hours and for 39% of Americans it is longer than 50 hours.   Salaried workers who are not eligible for overtime have the longest workweek; 50% of them work more than 50 hours a week and 25% of them work longer than 60 hours per week.[1]  Why do Americans work such long hours and how can this be changed?

Americans work too much, but not because they love their jobs.  Sixty-four percent of American managers, executives and officials are “not engaged” in, or are “actively disengaged,” from their jobs, where not engaged means that they put the time but not energy or passion into their work. For physicians the figure is even higher, 66%, and for all workers the figure is higher still, 70%.[2] The American Medical Association discovered that for physicians, job satisfaction declines as the number of hours worked increases.[3]

Overworked Americans come in four varieties: those — think McDonald’s workers — who are forced to overwork because their wages are too low; those — think workers of Epic, the medical software giant — who are forced to overwork because their employer expect a 50 hours week; and those – think lawyers or managers –who are forced to overwork because of the culture of the workplace. Physicians are a fourth variety; they work long hours because there aren’t enough of them.

Each variety calls for a different solution. But the eight hour day must be won simultaneously by all.

The Minimum Wage For the Eight-Hour-Day: How Much? Can We Afford It? 

About a third of all families in the country are headed by a single parent with two children.[4] In order to afford a modest standard of living in New York City such a family needs an annual income of $94,000.[5] In Marshall County, Mississippi, the same standard costs just $35,000. The place where that standard of living budget is at the median is Topeka, Kansas, and its level is $59,000.

These budgets have many items, including the taxes that the family would owe.   Two particularly large items, however, are health care and childcare, and if the government were to assume full responsibility for just these two items, the modest-standard of living budget would be only $51,000 in NYC, $21,000 in Marshall County, and $29,000 in Topeka. Divided over 2,080 of paid working hours a year yields a minimum wage of $24 an hour in NYC, $10 an hour in Marshall county Mississippi, and $14 an hour in Topeka, Kansas. Given the numbers, can society actually provide a decent standard of living to all families? Easily.

The GDP per capita in the US is $55,000,[6] and if the workweek were reduced to 40 instead of 47 hours, GDP per capita would be $47,000. Currently all levels of government together, federal, state and local, spend 35.6% of the GDP.[7] (The government’s share shot up due to the sub-prime Great Recession. In 2000 it was only 30% of the GDP.) If the government were to assume full responsibility for health care costs (it already covers 60.5% of them anyway[8],) and childcare costs (which constitute just .03% of GDP), the share of government expenditures would rise to 42.5% of the GDP, or $23,000 per capita. With an eight-hour working day this would leave us with $24,000 per capita to be spent on items that are not supplied by the government, or $72,000 for a family of three. Since the average modest budget is around $29,000 (this is the median; the actual average modest-standard-of living budget is not known) it is abundantly clear that we could all work just eight-hour days, and let even our lowest paid workers earn a modest living, and still leave room for plenty of inequality.

Employers who demand long hours and the culture of overwork

Epic is a leading provider of computerized medical records. Epic apparently officially expects a workweek of 50 hours, and on average employees work 57 hours, and as a result its employees, often fresh college graduates, burn out and are replaced by a fresh crop.[9] Epic is not unique.   A Forbes reporter was told she would have to agree to a 55 to 60 hours per week if she wanted a tech job.[10]

The first step in the solution of this problem is simple: Demanding that employees work more than eight hours a day should be illegal. But this raises the issue of enforcement. How would we stop employees from working long hours when this is expected, even if it is not demanded, of them?   The situation is similar to the situation of the overworking lawyers, and because it is self-imposed, it may appear insurmountable. The solution lies in a law that prohibits overwork and a willingness to report violations. If all else fails, perhaps we should put the surveillance of us that the NSA conducts anyway, to good use. Let the NSA keep tab on the number of hours people work, and fines could be automatically levied online just as soon as an infraction is detected.

The physician shortage

Physicians work long hours because there aren’t enough of them. In the US there are 2.45 physicians per 1,000 people whereas in Germany the density is 3.69 per 1,000. And the difference is stark: In the US 21 mothers die at childbirth per 100,000 live births, while in Germany the number is 7. In the US 6.72 infants die per 100,000 live births, while in Germany the number is 3.46. American doctors work way too hard and we suffer way too much because of their shortage. The solution for this problem is obvious: More medical schools.

It is ironic that it is the ailment of the medical profession that reveals what ails us all. It was Milton Friedman who first called our attention to the fact that the American Medical Association prevents the opening of new medical schools. But what he did not do is explain to the doctors that while they were successful and made themselves money-rich, they also robbed themselves of job satisfaction and made themselves time-poor.

Money is a zero-sum game: If you have less of it, someone else has more. Time, however, is a cooperative game: If you have less of it, someone else has less of it too. But these two separate games cannot be played separately. We cannot fight for money without paying for it with time. On this 2015 May Day, workers and executives, fast food employees and lawyers, patients and doctors should come together and say enough! At long last we are ready to create the eight-hours workday.

Moshe Adler teaches economics at Columbia University and at the Harry Van Arsdale Center for Labor Studies at Empire State College. He is the author of Economics for the Rest of Us: Debunking the Science That Makes Life Dismal (The New Press, 2010),  which is available in paperback and as  an e-book.


[1] http://www.gallup.com/poll/175286/hour-workweek-actually-longer-seven-hours.aspx.

[2] http://employeeengagement.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/06/Gallup-2013-State-of-the-American-Workplace-Report.pdf.

[3] http://www.ama-assn.org/ama/pub/ama-wire/ama-wire/post/many-hours-average-physician-workweek.

[4] http://www.census.gov/population/www/socdemo/hh-fam/cps2010.html, Table AVG3.

[5] http://www.epi.org/resources/budget/

[6] https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/us.html.

[7] http://taxfoundation.org/article/short-history-government-taxing-and-spending-united-states

[8] http://www.pnhp.org/facts/single-payer-faq#costs_down

[9] http://www.glassdoor.com/Reviews/Epic-Systems-Corporation-Reviews-E35163.htm.

[10] http://www.forbes.com/sites/groupthink/2013/08/25/why-silicon-valleys-work-culture-is-killing-us/ .


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Moshe Adler teaches economics at Columbia University and at the Harry Van Arsdale Center for Labor Studies at Empire State College. He is the author of Economics for the Rest of Us: Debunking the Science That Makes Life Dismal (The New Press, 2010),  which is available in paperback and as an e-book and in Chinese (2013) and Korean (2015) editions.

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