Bernie Sanders Proposes 32-Hour Workweek As New U.S. Standard

Insisting it was "not a radical idea," the progressive senator said that his legislation would "allow Americans to enjoy a better quality of life."

Sen. Bernie Sanders and other progressive lawmakers introduced legislation this week that would make a 32-hour workweek the new U.S. standard.

The Vermont independent said that reducing the typical workweek from 40 hours was “not a radical idea,” considering the advancements in productivity in recent decades.

“It is time to reduce the stress level in our country and allow Americans to enjoy a better quality of life,” Sanders said. “It is time for a 32-hour workweek with no loss in pay.”

The bill, called the Thirty-Two Hour Workweek Act, would reduce the federal overtime threshold from 40 hours down to 32. That means many employers would have to start paying time-and-a-half wages once hourly workers hit 32 hours in a week rather than 40, the standard since 1938.

The bill would also mandate time-and-a-half pay when workers log more than eight hours in a day, and double pay when they log over 12 — further discouraging employers from working their employees more than eight hours a day, four days a week.

A similar proposal was sponsored on the House side by Democratic California Rep. Mark Takano, who in a statement called it “transformative legislation that will be a win for both workers and workplaces.” Takano has been pushing for a 32-hour workweek since 2021.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), pictured here, and Rep. Mark Takano (D-Calif.) introduced legislation that would make a 32-hour workweek the new standard.
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), pictured here, and Rep. Mark Takano (D-Calif.) introduced legislation that would make a 32-hour workweek the new standard.
Via Associated Press

The legislation has no chance of passing the GOP-controlled House and only slim odds in the Democratic-controlled Senate, where more centrist Democrats are likely to balk at changing wage-and-hour law. But the legislation highlights a priority for some progressive lawmakers and labor unions — giving workers more leisure time with their loved ones.

During a Thursday hearing on Capitol Hill, Sanders joked to Republicans that his bill “probably won’t be passing tomorrow.” But he said his hope was that Congress would debate an idea that “has not been discussed for decades and decades.”

Shawn Fain, the president of the United Auto Workers union, said at the hearing that many autoworkers end up with hip and shoulder replacements due to their long hours on the factory floor. He said that no worker reaches the end of their life and wishes that they had worked longer or made more money.

“They wish they’d had more time,” Fain said.

Sen. Bill Cassidy, a Republican from Louisiana, said that he had no problem with Fain’s union trying to negotiate a 32-hour workweek with automakers like Ford and General Motors. (The UAW had proposed but not secured such a standard during its historic strike against the “Big Three” last year.) But Cassidy said the government shouldn’t be wading into the matter.

“Employers would be forced to eliminate full-time positions in favor of part-time ones,” Cassidy said. “If a business wants to voluntarily try a 32-hour workweek for themselves, federal law already allows it.”

Shortening the workweek was once a top priority of the labor movement in the U.S., especially in the 19th and early 20th centuries, as average weekly hours shortened from more than 70 in the early 1900s to around 40 in the 1930s, according to one historian’s estimate. Progress stalled out after the enactment of the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, the landmark federal law establishing time-and-a-half pay when workers spend more than 40 hours per week on the job.

The number of hours worked in a year continued shortening through the 20th century in other advanced countries, thanks largely to government requirements for various forms of paid time off. Americans work more hours than their peers in Europe, according to data from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development — likely because the U.S. is the only advanced country that doesn’t require employers to offer paid parental leave, paid vacation or paid holidays.

While both the Sanders and Takano bills would lower the Fair Labor Standards Act’s overtime threshold, the two bills are not exactly the same. The Senate bill stipulates that an employer “may not reduce the total workweek compensation rate,” an attempt to keep workers’ total take-home pay the same while reducing their hours, essentially giving covered employees an hourly raise. The House bill has no such language.

Cassidy said that the Sanders proposal would amount to the government setting wages.

“It’s something that the federal government would do in terms of wages not seen since the New Deal,” Cassidy told HuffPost.

As for the idea of a shorter workweek, Cassidy said, “40 hours is what people have adjusted to.”

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