To businesses, hours of labor indicate productivity and human capital invested into rendering a product or service. For employees, however, the time spent working—as well as free from working—is more likely considered a quality-of-life measurement or a gauge of how much income to expect. The lines are clearly drawn: companies, under ideal circumstances, wish to gain as much employee time as possible at the least cost, whereas workers generally wish to obtain as much compensation as possible for the smallest practical investment of their time. But each side's demands don't end there. Employees want to arrange their working hours as best suit their lifestyles and are infuriated when employers refuse to be flexible; companies, for their part, want every hour to be spent wisely and efficiently.

In large part, though, the two sides are reconciled in a number of employment rules, conventions, and emerging practices that are observed widely in the United States. These include such common notions as overtime definitions and regulations (e.g., the standard work day is 8 hours and any time beyond 40 hours per week is considered overtime), along with more innovative practices such as flextime and telecommuting.

There are many variations of the work week in several sectors of the economy, especially sectors such as public safety and health that require 24-hour coverage. The concept of the 40-hour week spread over five days is by no means universal in retailing and service industries, either; weekend and evening hours have steadily grown in response to consumer demand for convenient—sometimes continuous—access to such services. These industries use shift work and overtime to schedule their hours of operation. When workers in any industry are not covered by the federal pay hour standards (for instance, those on salary), the work week can and does often exceed 40 hours without any required overtime compensation.


The American labor movement's efforts to secure the 40-hour week or 8-hour day standard in America is traced in thorough detail by David R. Roediger and Philip S. Foner in Our Own Time. According to Roediger and Foner, as early as the Middle Ages the London weaver's guild attempted to cut the working hours of apprentices. In colonial America, this British concern for the workday persisted and a free man's work day generally ran from sunup to sundown with rest on Sundays.

As the Industrial Revolution progressed in England, craftspeople began to ask for shorter hours. According to Roediger and Foner, workers in shops and in the new factories viewed control over hours as part of the larger issues of control over work product, work conditions, and their own lives.

During and after the Civil War, labor unions focused on the goal of an eight-hour day to give workers more free time. This issue remained central until the 1930s and has since dropped from view as a primary issue in labor negotiations. Average weekly hours dropped from 59 in 1900 to 40.6 in 1972.

The Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 was a landmark in modern employment law and, as amended, is still in effect. It banned the employment of children under most circumstances and set a minimum hourly wage for workers in certain establishments.


The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) conducts two monthly studies, augmented by periodic revisions, that supply the most comprehensive data about the U.S. work force. The surveys use two opposing methods to collect data on labor hours: payroll hours reported by employers and work diaries from employees. In the first approach, part of the Current Employment Statistics survey, firms provide the BLS with data based on payroll, or paid employee hours. Hours may then be tabulated for all companies in a particular industry sector to arrive at industry employment and productivity figures. However, this method may underestimate hours spent by salaried employees. Further, these figures don't cover sectors of the economy such as the self-employed, nor do they identify the total number of hours one worker may have put in; for instance, one person may have more than one job. The other method, work diary, is a more intensive and elaborate method. The BLS collects this information as part of its monthly Current Population Survey, produced in conjunction with the U.S. Census Bureau. Using the diary, workers record activities of work and nonwork for a single week or more. This approach separates the hours paid from hours worked and provides more detail than employer reporting.

Data from these and other sources has been used by scholars and analysts to ascertain trends in U.S. employment practices. Their conclusions, however, have varied widely. In 1991 Harvard economist Juliet B. Schor published an influential book entitled The Overworked American: The Unexpected Decline of Leisure. As the title suggests, Schor concluded, based in part on BLS data, that Americans on average were spending some 163 more hours at work per year—around 3 extra hours per week—than they had 20 years earlier. But subsequent analyses of the data focusing on full-time workers showed a much smaller increase, somewhere in the range of an hour per week for people in their prime working years. That and other evidence suggests possible inaccuracies in claims that U.S. workers have lost ground.

The above notwithstanding, anecdotal evidence continues to surface that workers today are faring worse relative to their status a couple decades ago. In the case of wages and job security, this is statistically provable; for hours the evidence is profoundly mixed. In certain occupations and industries there has been a trend toward overtime, both voluntary and involuntary, since the 1980s. This pattern is in part a result of corporate vigilance against developing a bloated work force. On the surface, it might appear that hiring an additional employee has the same effect as requiring 10 existing employees to work overtime. But the overhead costs of maintaining additional employees—not to mention the prospect of a slowdown—make overtime economics very appealing in many executives' estimations.


Whether or not American labor is working more hours, one of the most important developments concerning work time has been the spread of flexible working hours, popularly known as flextime, and telecommuting. These options allow employees to customize their schedules to various degrees. Flextime programs usually establish a set of core hours during which employees must work and a range of flexible hours in which they may work at their discretion. So instead of the customary 9-5 schedule, some employees might choose 7-3, and others 10-6. The core hours specify the portion of the work day that everyone is still expected to observe, e.g., 10-2. Similarly, telecommuting gives employees the choice of where to spend those hours. Usually facilitated by a computer connection, telecommuters' work can be done at home on certain days and during whatever hours the company requires. Liberal telecommuting policies allow the work to be done at any time of day or combination of hours, so long as work is completed on time.

The popularity of these sorts of employee-friendly time arrangements surged during the 1990s, according to various studies. The consulting firm William M. Mercer Inc. found in 1998 that 61 percent of employers it surveyed allowed flexible hours, a 50 percent increase from only five years earlier. The same poll indicated that by 1998 one-third of employers had created telecommuting programs. Other research from the same period, however, estimated lower penetration rates for such programs, and found that they are considerably more common at large and high-tech companies than at smaller and more traditional firms.

Employers have explored new hour configurations like flextime not only out of compassion for workers' personal lives. Some companies that implemented these programs realized productivity gains and better employee retention rates, while others adopted them as incentives to lure skilled workers in high-demand occupations.

SEE ALSO : Family Leave


Foust, Dean. "Killer Hours Are a Myth." Business Week, 3 August 1998.

Gold, Daniel M. "Flex Time for Everyone? It's Closer Every Day." New York Times, I November 1998.

Greenwald, Judy. "Employers Warming Up to Flexible Schedules." Business Insurance, 15 June 1998.

Roediger, David R., and Philip S. Foner. Our Own Time. New York: Verso Books, 1989.

Rose, Karol L. "The Business Case for Flex." HR Focus, August 1998.

Schor, Juliet B. The Overworked American. New York: Basic Books, 1991.

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. "Current Labor Statistics." Monthly Labor Review. Available from www.bls.gov .

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