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10-Hour, 4-Day Schedule Just Isn't Working Out : Labor: Many firms say wage laws limit flexibility, and workers find pace grueling. A 9-hour system with alternate Fridays off is gaining favor.

November 06, 1994|DON LEE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

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

After eight hours of welding and machining aluminum patio furniture, worker productivity fell sharply, according to Pohl. "It was just grueling for our employees."

Tropitone thus 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 work days. "It just cost us too much," Pohl said, although she declined to provide a figure.

The four-day workweek has been well received by some companies. But as more businesses in California and nationwide adopt shorter workweeks, hoping for financial and environmental benefits, a growing body of evidence is emerging that the four-day work schedule is not living up to expectations for most companies.

Especially in California, where companies complain that they have little flexibility to run such schedules effectively because of the state's wage laws.

Tropitone isn't alone in trying and later abandoning the four-day workweek. Companies that have stuck with the schedule suggest that it has had mixed results. And some--seeing weaknesses in the 10-hour workdays--are instead opting for the 9/80 plan in which employees get every other Friday off by putting in nine hours of work Monday through Thursday, plus 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.

Washington attributes the problems largely to the state's restrictive wage regulations. At their core is a law that requires employers to pay daily overtime wages for work performed past eight hours a day, whereas in most other states time-and-one-half pay kicks in only after 40 hours in a workweek.

The only way a business in this state can legally run a compressed work schedule is by first getting two-thirds approval from 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 can remove it at any time, but to switch back they must seek another two-thirds approval. Companies say that limits their ability to operate fluid work schedules to meet seasonal needs.

Manufacturers on compressed work schedules have the additional requirement of guaranteeing 40 hours of work each week to employees. Plus they cannot schedule more than 10 hours of work a day, which means companies with continuous operations can't install, say, two shifts of 12 hours each.

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

Lloyd Aubry, director of the state's Industrial Relations Department, said that however inflexible the wage rules may be, "this was not imposed on them. Manufacturers and their representatives agreed to them."

Aubry said the state's wage provisions were originally enacted to protect workers and have become more flexible in recent years. But noting that employers have complained about the inflexibility, he said, "It's something that the Industrial Wage Commission will have to take a look at."

Gov. Pete Wilson, who temporarily lifted the daily overtime requirements after the Northridge earthquake to help workers and businesses recover, said he thinks the daily overtime rule should be permanently removed. Wilson urged the next legislative session to create a bill that would do so.

Nationwide, experts say, 25% or more of large companies offer a four-day work schedule for at least some of their employees. But in California, that 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 factories on compressed workweeks, 537 manufacturers--including 80 in Orange County--have reported converting, mostly to the four 10-hour-day workweek. But experts said many of these companies have since dropped their plans.

Mike Beaulieu, personnel manager at Tolo Inc., a Santa Ana manufacturer of metal and plastic components, which had been on a four-day workweek, said: "A few weeks ago, we got out of it." He declined to provide further details, saying only that management decided to discard it.

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

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