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Finding the Week that Works : For Many Employers the Four-Day Schedule Hasn't Panned Out, but Alternatives Are Succeeding

November 13, 1994|DON LEE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

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

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

The Irvine company 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 workdays. "It just cost us too much," Pohl said.

The four-day workweek has been well received at some companies, but as more businesses in California and nationwide adopt shorter weeks, evidence is emerging that the four-day schedule is not producing the expected financial and environmental benefits for most companies.

This is especially true in California, where employers complain that state wage laws leave them little flexibility to run such schedules effectively.

Tropitone has not been alone in trying and later abandoning the four-day week. Companies that have stuck with the schedule suggest that it has had mixed results. And some--seeing weaknesses in the 10-hour workday--are instead opting for the 9/80 plan, under which employees get every other Friday off by working nine hours Monday through Thursday and 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.

He attributed the problems largely to the state's restrictive wage regulations. At their core is a law that requires overtime pay whenever a workday exceeds eight hours; in most other states the overtime rule kicks in only after 40 hours are worked in a week.

The only way a California business can legally run a compressed workweek is by first getting the approval of two-thirds of 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 may remove it at any time, but to switch back they must again ask for a two-thirds approval. Companies say that limits their ability to operate fluid work schedules to meet seasonal needs.

Manufacturers on compressed schedules must also guarantee employees 40 hours of work each week, and they cannot schedule shifts longer than 10 hours. That means companies with continuous operations can't install, say, two shifts of 12 hours each.

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

Lloyd Aubry, director of the state Industrial Relations Department, said the state's wage provisions were intended to protect workers and have become more flexible in recent years. Noting employers' complaints about inflexibility, he said that "it's something that the Industrial Wage Commission will have to take a look at."

Gov. Pete Wilson, who temporarily lifted the daily overtime rule after the Northridge earthquake in January, has said he plans to ask the Legislature to get rid of it permanently.

Nationwide, experts say, 25% or more of large companies offer a four-day work schedule to at least some employees. In California the 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 compressed workweeks in manufacturing, 537 factories have reported making the switch, mostly to four 10-hour days a week. But experts said many companies have since dropped the compressed schedule.

Mike Beaulieu, personnel manager at Tolo Inc., a Santa Ana maker of metal and plastic components that had been on a four-day workweek, said the company dropped the schedule a few weeks ago. He said management made the decision, but he would not give further details.

*

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

Many city and county governments, because of declining tax revenues, close their offices on alternate Fridays to cut costs. Most offices in Orange County and some in Los Angeles County now operate under the 9/80 plan, though Orange County officials decided last week to discontinue the practice because it was not saving the county enough money.

In some ways, the push for compressed schedules is part of a larger workplace trend that has seen most large employers offer staggered hours and flex time--which do not require a vote by workers. Flex time gives employees a span of time in which to report to work. And staggering start times helps employers comply with state car-pooling requirements.

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