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The Boston Globe

Magazine

Perspective

Time for a change

After the three-day Columbus Day weekend, a pitch for a compressed workweek.

Kali Ciesemier

There are two kinds of people you’ll come upon tomorrow: happy ones and those stuck working Columbus Day. But the delight enjoyed by the former shouldn’t be limited to the half dozen or so weeks of the year with a Monday federal holiday. In a time when the value of paychecks is shrinking, the workweek should be shrinking, too. I don’t mean less work or pay, just four days of 10 hours each — a so-called 4/10 schedule — and a fifth of no hours. Time for undone errands, doctor’s appointments you otherwise couldn’t schedule, sleep — and, finally, those oboe lessons!

Academics and HR types call this a compressed week. People like Kevin Hutchings, who’s worked 19 years at Double E Co. in West Bridgewater, call it “like having a vacation every week.” He and his 30-plus manufacturing co-workers are off Fridays.

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Americans once labored six days out of seven, then unions demanded a five-day week. When the feds mandated a 40-hour week for everyone in 1940, the two-day weekend was born. It’s time to give birth to the three-day version.

Riva Poor made just that point four decades ago in her book 4 days, 40 hours: Reporting a Revolution in Work and Leisure. In September, she told me the revolution has succeeded. She’s right if you consider all kinds of work flexibility — job sharing, flextime, telecommuting (I tried that, but my chair spent more time in front of my refrigerator than my desk). But the four-day solution has a ways to go.

New York’s Families and Work Institute reported in 2012 that 36 percent of workplaces offer a compressed week at least part of the year. It’s big in the airline industry, food service, and law enforcement. By some estimates, about half of registered nurses can work a compressed week. Then there’s Utah.

In early 2012, I introduced myself to that state’s former governor and then presidential candidate Jon Huntsman. I joked that I was thinking of moving to New Hampshire so I could vote for the man who, in 2008, implemented a 4/10 workweek for more than 70 percent of Utah’s state employees, about 17,000 people. He thanked me but said that I was a little late — the Utah Legislature had repealed his measure a few months before we spoke. Ended it despite wide employee and taxpayer satisfaction and a greater ability to compete in recruiting with flexibility-friendly Google and Microsoft.

In Massachusetts, compressed options have crept into large workplaces like Raytheon, Blue Cross, and State Street Corp. and smaller ones like that manufacturing firm in West Bridgewater and the town of Reading, where the Town Hall is open earlier Monday through Thursday and later on Tuesdays. Town Manager Bob LeLacheur says he was inspired by Utah’s experiment and that the majority of residents love it. Now, 9-to-5 commuters can get service that used to be available only when they were not. His workers seem to be happy, too. Jessie Wilson, a staff planner, sums up the schedule in one word: “awesome.”

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Wilson is not alone. Jaime Caruso has been at State Street for 15 years. She works nine longer days and has every second Friday off. Of her 7,500 Massachusetts co-workers with some sort of flexible arrangement, 600 have a compressed week. Asked if she were offered the same job elsewhere with a 10 percent raise but a traditional workweek, Caruso says she wouldn’t move. “I value the flexibility more than the money.”

All four-dayers tell me much the same thing: They spend less time and money commuting, they can run errands when stores aren’t packed, and they have more time to take kids or parents to doctor’s appointments. They volunteer, pursue hobbies, or just recharge. Employers talk of energy savings, improved morale, and better recruitment and retention. Plus, research suggests that less is more, that a compressed worker is a more productive worker.

It’s not for everyone, though. Longer days can be stressful, tiring. Extended child care may be harder to find and more expensive. And some unconvinced employers say that even rotating the days off won’t allow enough coverage for eager customers.

But if the critics are the outliers, why aren’t more workplaces 4/10? Huntsman, who now cochairs No Labels, with the oxymoronic goal of bipartisan problem-solving, tells me that if he were still governor, “there would be a four-day workweek.” He blames risk-aversion for the fact there isn’t.

Reading’s LeLacheur is more blunt: “It’s a lack of political courage!” And organized labor, whose bumper stickers remind us it “brought you the weekend,” has other priorities and appears less enamored of the three-day variety than it was of the two.

But Brad Harrington, executive director of Boston College’s Center for Work & Family, is optimistic: “The more we move to a results-based culture, the less it will matter where, when, and how we work — as long as the job gets done.”

So if you’re off tomorrow, enjoy the three-day weekend. And here’s hoping that some year soon there will be 51 more just like it.

Jim Braude is host of Broadside: The News With Jim Braude on NECN and co-host of WGBH’s Boston Public Radio on 89.7 FM. You can follow him on Twitter @jimbraude. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.

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