Wednesday, June 8, 2016

The Last Gasp Of 40-Hour Weeks

As we approach the final stretch in building the city’s new high school, many subcontractors have realized they’re behind schedule. The site must close by July 31st, and most subs must complete their responsibilities before that. As deadline-induced panic sets in, bosses have begun redoubling demands on workers. This involves common annoying activities, like micromanaging and exhaustive checklists. It also includes slave-driving practices guaranteed to create new problems.

Chief among these counterproductive procedures: the twelve-hour workday. Though I haven’t asked every subcontractor, the electricians, plumbers, and window hangers I’ve spoken to complain about mandatory ultra-long workdays. These aren’t just some days, either. Workers are skipping scheduled activities, like bowling leagues, their kids’ softball games, and religious observances, to work twelve hours a day, six and seven days per week. The hours show in their drawn, colorless faces.

Nearly everyone affects cheerful demeanors, when discussing their twelve-hour days. “I’m rolling in the overtime,” they say. “That’s my kids’ college fund,” one drywaller boasted. But they speak with manic, Joker-like grins, desperate to convince themselves. Most roll home around sundown, exhausted, to catch a reheated dinner and collapse into deep, comatose sleep, only to arrive at sunrise tomorrow and try again. Incipient problem drinking is epidemic.

I ran the math. Assuming the workers pull the Bernie Sanders wage of $15 hourly—which few do—then a forty-hour workweek comes to $600 before taxes. But working twelve hours a day, six days per week, makes workers entitled to 32 hours’ overtime pay, or $22.50. That’s $720 for the overtime, or $1,320 combined, more than doubling workers’ wages without doubling time worked. Does this return justify the investment?

Probably not. Besides the increased wages, longer hours involve other added costs. Tired, bored workers are more likely to commit function errors in their jobs, errors that require them to redo tasks until they’re done correctly. Having watched electricians rip out previously installed wiring, plumbers re-hang cockeyed roof drains, and concrete workers jackhammering out mislaid sidewalks, I can’t help wondering: how much did that run up their overall costs?

Nerves are fraying around the jobsite. For many subcontractors, finishing this project will mean not just ending the present task, but relocating to pursue the next job. Many of my co-workers are functionally absentee husbands and fathers, regardless whether their families live nearby. Well-paid but tired, with nothing in their lives but more work, these employees shuffle around, looking uncannily like reanimated corpses. There have been fistfights.

Some problems are unavoidable when you jam a hundred men together in a confined space with little autonomy and low wages. Let’s not kid ourselves, men drawn to careers in construction probably aren’t big-spirited yoga practitioners in their off hours. But the long hours under high-pressure conditions, redoing tasks well-rested men could’ve done better the first time, makes problems more likely. These explosions, real or embryonic, are completely avoidable.

Imagine if subcontractors offered forty hours’ wages for thirty hours’ work. A thirty-hour workweek averages to five six-hour days. Given the length of daylight in Nebraska in summer, subcontractors could easily manage two six-hour shifts daily, getting workers in, getting their most productive hours, then sending them home before fatigue and boredom begin causing significant problems. Less stress, fewer do-overs, and less overtime pay. Sounds like a winner to me.

Under these conditions, even if subcontractors needed to pull six-day workweeks (which they might not if they don’t need to repair botched jobs), workers still have plenty of time for family, community activities, and rest. Employers save on overtime, OSHA-reportable injuries, and rework. Budgets go down, schedules get streamlined, and tempers don’t fray. This idea isn’t new to me. Senator Henry Black pushed a thirty-hour workweek over eighty years ago.

But then as now, management would rather pay more for tired, bored workers. We’ve accepted the idea of work as a moral good in its own right, separate from the worker’s outside life, and think there’s nothing unusual about requiring America’s poorest-paid workers to pull hours so long, the ASPCA would burst if we inflicted them on a horse. Then we judge them morally for widespread class-specific alcohol abuse problems.

This contradicts the entire conservative attitude regarding wages and regulation. If we’d rather pay more for tired workers to redo mistakes, than hire enough workers initially, the entire supply-side argument goes down. But perhaps that’s the point. Perhaps, below the surface, capitalists realize they need workers more than workers need them. And they’d rather fatigue their workers than face the consequences.

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