Utah's experiment with 4-day workweek has lessons for California

Published: Monday, May. 21, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 1A
Last Modified: Monday, May. 21, 2012 - 8:05 am

As Gov. Jerry Brown and labor unions negotiate to put state workers on a four-day, 38-hour workweek to cut payroll costs, they could learn a lot by looking east – to Utah.

The Beehive State's workforce went to a "four-tens" week in 2008. Then-Gov. Jon Huntsman, a Republican, launched the program aiming to save $3 million annually in state operating costs by shutting down on Fridays.

The savings didn't materialize. Lawmakers ended the program last year over the objections of Huntsman's successor, GOP Gov. Gary Herbert.

In between, agencies didn't live up to promises they made to track the Working 4 Utah program. A state audit of the compressed workweek's impact paints a portrait of government struggling to hold itself accountable, groping to measure how the policy affected the productivity of 17,000 state employees.

"Very few departments tracked that," said Tim Osterstock of the Legislative Auditor General's Office, which issued a 2010 report on the program.

California's proposal differs somewhat from Utah's because it is designed to save money by cutting hours. Still, its experiment offers lessons for this state about the intersection of workplace policy and human behavior.

Utah employees, who hadn't received raises in several years, resisted the change at first but eventually embraced it, said Todd Sutton, employee representative with the the Utah Public Employees' Association. The amount of leave employees took fell 4 percent during the program's first year.

Nearly 60 percent of Utah state employees told auditors they strongly agreed with the statement, "The nature of my work lends itself to a productive 10-hour day." Eight in 10 said they preferred the four 10-hour days per week. Only 10 percent said the compressed schedule made child care more difficult.

"Day care centers and businesses adjusted," Sutton said. "Nearly everybody did."

Still, about 4,000 Utah workers didn't switch to the new schedule because their jobs wouldn't allow it.

"You can't decide on Friday that you're not going to remove snow from the roads," Osterstock said.

Some managers in departments that did switch reported that extended work hours improved their service. The state's Driver License Division offices opened at 7 a.m., and auditors found the offices "quite busy" at that early hour.

Still, auditors heard plenty of stories that Work 4 Utah wasn't working.

Some state employees simply came in late or left early. Some worked through the day and then took lunch at the end of the day. Some gamed a midday leave program intended to promote daily exercise by claiming the time at the end of the day.

"The 10-hour days just started shortening up," Osterstock said, "and things degraded from there."

Scheduling conflicts at 24/7 facilities such as prisons and hospitals posed a problem. Some work went undone on Fridays because some employees worked while others didn't.

"Getting work done on Fridays is impossible considering the business office, the warehouse and half the hospital are not around," one state worker told auditors. "It also makes for an unproductive day where many people can't fulfill their responsibilities because the other half of their team is off."

Some workers admitted the longer shifts made them more tired and less productive, especially at the end of the week.

There also were problems synchronizing with courts, and federal and local governments that kept a regular five-day, eight-hour schedule.

"For example, a judge would set a Friday court date and say, 'This is when it is,' " Osterstock said. "Things like that were real problems."

Auditors measured the number of inspections that departments completed, the number of cases closed or the number of projects completed on time and within budget. Results varied, with some departments reporting slightly more work done under the four-10s schedule and some reporting slightly less.

Although studies show that workers generally prefer four-day workweeks, Brown's proposal has already lost some employee goodwill because, unlike the Utah program, it cuts overall hours and pay.

Most state workers would move to a four-day schedule, 9.5 hours per day. The 5 percent pay reduction equals an estimated $401 million in general fund savings and $839 million in total savings when applied to all state funds.

Although Brown seeks to negotiate specifics with the dozen labor unions that represent the 181,000 state workers under his authority, some people will resist the idea and make life difficult for co-workers.

"Change isn't something that people adjust to very well to begin with," said Lynn Taylor, a Santa Monica-based workplace efficiency expert, "and the pay cut is already one strike against the governor's plan."

State workers who would be affected by the scheduling change offered different opinions about its impact on productivity.

Some said three-day weekends don't make up for the 5 percent loss in pay. Morale would suffer, they contend, and with it productivity.

Others such as Education Department employee Cate Washington said, "I'm fine with it," but that co-workers with kids were worried about their day care arrangements.

"I think management is going to have to be more flexible about when (parents) come in," she said.

Taylor said the scheduling change would be a test for managers who have to simultaneously "explain the bright side" – the three-day weekends – while acknowledging "this means sacrifices all around."

Many managers will feel pressure to get 40 hours of work done in 38 hours, Taylor said. Some may press workers to forgo breaks or stay late on their own time.

Switching back from a four-day to a five-day workweek can be traumatic, too.

Utah lawmakers never liked that Huntsman launched the four-day workweek on his own or that the auditors figured it had saved only $500,000. They also didn't like angry calls from constituents complaining about closed offices on Fridays.

The Utah Legislature passed a bill in March 2011 to reopen the state on Fridays. Herbert vetoed it, saying Utah residents had grown accustomed to the four-day schedule and changing it "would be too disruptive, and simply bad policy." The Legislature convened a rare Saturday night session and overrode Herbert's veto on a 21-6 vote.

Utah ended the four-day mandate in September, but allowed departments more freedom to schedule employees as they saw fit.

"We let managers manage," Osterstock said. "Just about every agency I know of still has employees on four-tens."

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