THE FREEWAY – Look at them, lined up like weary soldiers in a chow line, bumper to bumper, hundreds of wage slaves trying to get home from work, but going nowhere. It’s like this every afternoon rush hour and, I assume, every morning rush hour, too. I try to avoid rush hours like the flu, jury duty and people who keep saying “Quid pro quo,” but this afternoon I find myself stuck here in traffic. At least it’s not raining. The Texas A&M Transportation Institute found that the average Houston commuter spent 75 hours annually stuck in traffic in 2017 — 22 hours more than 10 years prior in 2007. The Institute’s 2019 Urban Mobility Report ranked the Houston area seventh for most annual hours of delay with 247.44 million total hours in 2017. The study also determined that peak congestion times in Houston are Mondays and Tuesdays at 5 p.m. and Fridays at 4 p.m. – like right here right now. The annual cost of congestion in Houston is roughly $4.5 billion, which is calculated by combining time and fuel spent. The region also ranked fifth among all urban areas for most wasted fuel.
But what if you could cut your commuting time by 20 percent? It’s the four-day workweek, which has been talked about, even tried, but never seems to gather steam. The idea is simple: cram 40 hours of work into four days at your assembly line at the pig rendering factory and take off Friday. (Obviously no one would take off, say, Wednesday but skipping Monday might appeal to some.) You work 10-hour days, then bug out Thursday afternoon, thoroughly beat, but you have a long three-day weekend ahead. There are obvious problems with this arrangement. If the wig store, muffler repair shop or tattoo parlor is closed on Fridays, so is income. Will customers squeeze their shopping into Monday through Thursday and maintain the same weekly cash flow? Remember when Texas had blue laws, keeping department stores closed on Sundays? That way Sears and Neiman’s didn’t have to staff their stores on Sundays. Now they do. Did the expanded workweek hurt business and/or income? A lot of beauty parlors and barber shops close Sunday-Monday. Most museums are closed Mondays.
Today a lot of people already work only four and a half days a week. Try ringing up a doctor or lawyer on Friday afternoons. “We’re sorry, but the Stitch & Staph Medical Center is closed. Please call us on Monday.” This is particularly prevalent on Fridays before a Monday-off holiday. Everybody leaves at noon on Friday, and one poor secretary is left in the entire office to answer the phone: “Mister Twister is in a meeting and ….” For proof, look at any out-bound freeway about 1 p.m. on the Friday before a Labor Day or Guy Fawkes Day weekend. It’s jammed. When the Fourth of July falls on July 4th and it’s on a Wednesday, that presents a problem, just take off the whole week. Thanksgiving is always on a Thursday, so forget doing business on the following Friday. The week between Christmas and New Year’s Day is a dead zone.
I once had a newspaper job that began on Sundays at 6 p.m. — 6 to 2 a.m. I was backing out my driveway at 5:30 on a Sunday afternoon while all the other fathers in the neighborhood were firing up their barbeques or coming back from a weekend at the beach. “Where you going?” they would ask. “Off to work.” But on the following days I would go to work earlier and earlier and by Thursdays I would leave work at 6, giving me almost a three-day weekend. Fire fighters and EMS workers often work straight through four days, so many of them don’t have to commute daily. They live five counties over and have an extra job. Here in Texas we have oil field hands who work offshore for a week, home for a week. If they work in Nigeria or Norway, it’s six weeks home and away.
Actually, the five-day workweek is the spin-off of a six-day time in the trenches. In 1908, a New England mill expanded the one-day weekend to two days, Saturday and Sunday, to accommodate Jewish workers who observed the Saturday Sabbath. Less than two decades later, Henry Ford instituted a five-day workweek throughout his company and the idea caught on. Now we have pretty much settled on a five-day, 40-hour schedule, although – facts stolen from other journalists’ research – there are a few examples of the shorter work period producing good results. In 2008, Utah switched most state employees to a workweek that consisted of four 10-hour days. An audit conducted before the state ended the practice in 2011 found that there wasn’t enough objective data to judge the effects on productivity.
In Sweden, a two-year experiment found that nurses who worked 30-hour weeks spread over five days were happier and healthier than counterparts who worked a typical 40-hour week, although new workers had to be hired, so costs increased. Last year a New Zealand estate planning advisory firm with about 240 employees found that a trial four-day week had boosted performance. The two-month experiment was so successful that the business, Perpetual Guardian, made the change permanent. Microsoft Japan reported that, in a trial, shortened weeks had boosted productivity by about 40 percent.
What if everyone started taking off on Fridays? You can’t go shopping because all the stores would be closed. TGIT. Maybe you leave Thursday afternoon to lay sewer pipe and paint the barn at your farm outside Bastrop. I went to college so I wouldn’t have to lay sewer pipe and paint a barn, but a lot of my neighbors seem to love it. The freeways are jammed because everyone is leaving, too.
Meantime, guess I’ll just stay here until this expressway is my official voting address. It’s starting to rain.
Ashby is stuck at firstname.lastname@example.org