Finding the Week that Works : For Many Employers the Four-Day Schedule Hasn’t Panned Out, but Alternatives Are Succeeding


Margie Pohl, personnel manager at Tropitone Furniture Inc., says the 10-hour, four-day workweek was a bust at her factory.

After eight hours of welding and machining aluminum patio furniture, workers’ productivity fell sharply, according to Pohl. “It was just grueling for our employees,” she said.

The Irvine company had to operate on Fridays to make up for the lost productivity and fill shipment orders. After a year of having to pay hefty overtime wages, the company abandoned the 10-hour workdays. “It just cost us too much,” Pohl said.


The four-day workweek has been well received at some companies, but as more businesses in California and nationwide adopt shorter weeks, evidence is emerging that the four-day schedule is not producing the expected financial and environmental benefits for most companies.

This is especially true in California, where employers complain that state wage laws leave them little flexibility to run such schedules effectively.

Tropitone has not been alone in trying and later abandoning the four-day week. Companies that have stuck with the schedule suggest that it has had mixed results. And some--seeing weaknesses in the 10-hour workday--are instead opting for the 9/80 plan, under which employees get every other Friday off by working nine hours Monday through Thursday and eight hours on alternate Fridays.

“The four-day workweek has not worked out very well at all,” said Willie Washington of the California Manufacturers Assn., which has 900 member companies.

He attributed the problems largely to the state’s restrictive wage regulations. At their core is a law that requires overtime pay whenever a workday exceeds eight hours; in most other states the overtime rule kicks in only after 40 hours are worked in a week.

The only way a California business can legally run a compressed workweek is by first getting the approval of two-thirds of its employees.

Employers and employees can initiate the vote for a shortened workweek, and either can rescind it. But for workers to do so, they must wait a year. Employers may remove it at any time, but to switch back they must again ask for a two-thirds approval. Companies say that limits their ability to operate fluid work schedules to meet seasonal needs.

Manufacturers on compressed schedules must also guarantee employees 40 hours of work each week, and they cannot schedule shifts longer than 10 hours. That means companies with continuous operations can’t install, say, two shifts of 12 hours each.

That is exactly what Indianapolis-based Inland Container Corp. wants to do at its paper mill in Ontario. Personnel manager Larry Gravette said Inland Container’s mills in other states operate on 12-hour shifts. “It’s just more of an economic disadvantage” for California, he said.

Lloyd Aubry, director of the state Industrial Relations Department, said the state’s wage provisions were intended to protect workers and have become more flexible in recent years. Noting employers’ complaints about inflexibility, he said that “it’s something that the Industrial Wage Commission will have to take a look at.”

Gov. Pete Wilson, who temporarily lifted the daily overtime rule after the Northridge earthquake in January, has said he plans to ask the Legislature to get rid of it permanently.

Nationwide, experts say, 25% or more of large companies offer a four-day work schedule to at least some employees. In California the figure is probably closer to 15%, said Matthew Bartosiak, a senior consultant at the Employers Group trade organization in Los Angeles.

Since mid-1989, when labor officials began tracking compressed workweeks in manufacturing, 537 factories have reported making the switch, mostly to four 10-hour days a week. But experts said many companies have since dropped the compressed schedule.

Mike Beaulieu, personnel manager at Tolo Inc., a Santa Ana maker of metal and plastic components that had been on a four-day workweek, said the company dropped the schedule a few weeks ago. He said management made the decision, but he would not give further details.


Despite the recent nationwide surge in the number of employers going to compressed work schedules, 10- and 12-hour work shifts have always been the norm for workers such as police officers, firefighters and hospital employees.

Many city and county governments, because of declining tax revenues, close their offices on alternate Fridays to cut costs. Most offices in Orange County and some in Los Angeles County now operate under the 9/80 plan, though Orange County officials decided last week to discontinue the practice because it was not saving the county enough money.

In some ways, the push for compressed schedules is part of a larger workplace trend that has seen most large employers offer staggered hours and flex time--which do not require a vote by workers. Flex time gives employees a span of time in which to report to work. And staggering start times helps employers comply with state car-pooling requirements.

“Increasingly, workers are finding a desperate need for more personal time,” said Barney Olmsted, co-director of New Ways to Work, a nonprofit resource group in San Francisco. Olmsted said more companies are considering the 9/80 plan, which seems to be producing better results than the four-day workweek.

Fluor Inc., an Irvine-based engineering services firm, looked at the four-day, 10-hour workweek, but Mark Krouse, Fluor’s human resources manager, said the 9/80 plan seemed to present less of a strain for workers. After a trial run of the 9/80 plan in the summer of 1990, Fluor workers overwhelmingly approved it and the new schedule was begun the following March.

About 90% of Fluor’s 3,000 employees in Irvine now work the 9/80 schedule. Senior managers and others--including Krouse--work conventional five-day workweeks to handle customer concerns on the off Fridays.

Krouse said the 9/80 plan has helped lift Fluor’s average vehicle ridership requirements from the South Coast Air Quality Management District to 1.34 employees per car this year, from 1.23 in 1991. (The AQMD’s goal is 1.5.)

The 9/80 schedule has helped Fluor recruit people such as David Neeve. “It was a great incentive to work here,” said Neeve, 26, who uses his free Fridays to work toward an MBA.

Nationwide surveys have shown that most people prefer a compressed schedule, whether it’s the 4/40, the 9/80 or some variation that gives them extra days off.

Take Kirk Wulff, a machine operator at Wesval Inc., an Anaheim company that makes controls for aircraft rudders.

Nearly every Friday morning, Wulff, 30, tees off at a golf course in Brea with his neighbor. He’s home by 10 a.m., takes care of work around his Anaheim house and can pick up his 6-year-old daughter from school. “When my wife gets home, we start our weekend,” he said.

Wesval’s owner, Kevin Huffer, raved about the four-day week as well. He said it has saved his company as much as $1.80 an hour per worker in overtime expenses. “It’s worked out fantastically for us,” he said.


But for some manufacturers, the 9/80 plan isn’t really an option, because the extra hour each day doesn’t boost production or save money.

And the four-day, 10-hour workweek has taken a punishing toll on some people, especially middle managers caught between production and senior management ranks.

Said Rick Boyer, a warehouse manager at the Pacific Fitness factory in Cypress: “I’m here at 6 in the morning and I never get out of here. I work a hell of a lot of Fridays” to make sure the work is done.

Partly because of the excessive work, Boyer said, he has given his notice. “Personally, the four-day workweek really sucks for me.”

Howard Cooper, president of Pacific Fitness, which makes exercise equipment, said most of his employees seem to like working fewer days, but even Cooper could not offer a ringing endorsement.

His main complaint: At the end of a quarter or a fiscal year, when the company needs to ship “everything that doesn’t walk,” the company has to operate on Fridays, which is costly.

“I can’t say it’s doing more good than bad,” Cooper said.

At Tropitone, “we just couldn’t do without Fridays,” said Pohl, the personnel manager. “Our customers needed things. They wanted it shipped on Friday.”

Worse yet, Pohl said, workers began to miss one of their regular workdays--some apparently on purpose--then come in Fridays, for which they were paid overtime. “It didn’t take long for employees to figure that out,” Pohl said.

She said Tropitone’s struggle with the four-day workweek was such that it wouldn’t matter if state labor laws were loosened. “I don’t think we would ever go back to it.”

New Ways to Work

Employers have been experimenting with alternatives to the conventional 9-to-5 workday in response to environmental concerns, efficiency demands and the growing need among workers for flexibility. But some companies say the benefits, of compressed workweeks in particular, are falling short of expectations. Strategies being tested include:

* 4/40: 10 hours of work on four days, usually Monday through Thursday.

* 9/80: 36 hours of work one week (nine-hour days Monday through Thursday, off Friday) and 44 hours the next week (nine-hour days Monday through Thursday, eight hours Friday).

* Flex time: Gives employees the option of changing their starting and ending times daily within a preset range (e.g., workers begin between 7 and 9 a.m. and leave between 3 and 5 p.m.).

* Staggered working hours: Employers stagger starting and ending times, generally by 15 minutes to 2 hours, so not all workers arrive or leave at once.