Published DateFree time is the great hunger for so many productive Americans, often trumping money. Studies show a huge desire for more self- and family-time, especially among parents. But Americans remain stuck in work schedules drawn up early last century. That doesn't make sense today, so why do we continue punching the old time clocks?
One big reason is that job benefits — above all, health coverage — typically require an eight-hour day, five days a week (or its equivalent). Note that the Affordable Care Act forces larger companies to cover only full-time workers, or pay a penalty.
Interestingly, the employer mandate was delayed due to confusion over what constitutes full-time employment. The law considers those putting in more than 30 hours a week or 130 hours a month full-time workers. But then, how do you count sick leave or temporary seasonal work? What do you do about visiting nurses, paid by the visit, not the hour? These things still need figuring out.
Last weekend, a cashier at my supermarket asked to be released at 3 p.m. so that she could go on to her next job. You can bet that this woman toils more hours than the average nine-to-fiver. You can also bet that none of her part-time jobs offers health benefits.
Lots of Americans are in her situation, which is why so many would prefer full-time positions. In June, more than 8 million part-timers tried unsuccessfully to secure full-time employment, according to the Labor Department.
Meanwhile, you hear mothers working outside the home wishing they could shorten their hours to spend more time with their children. Many report asking their employers for part-time arrangements and getting a "no."
Of course, certain jobs must be done in set shifts — police, emergency room doctors, assembly line workers. And workers must be physically together for projects demanding face-to-face collaboration. (Yahoo?)
But plenty of design, writing, computer programming and form-shuffling positions don't require many hours in an office. And very competent employees can often do their real work in four hours. They sit around another four because ... it's an eight-hour job.
So they spend afternoons bored at their desks playing video games or tooling around the Internet. They waste their time while providing no additional benefit for the employer.
If compensation were based on fulfilling the job requirements and included nothing else — not health benefits, not retirement plans — corporate bureaucracies wouldn't fret so much over time spent at the work station. People could labor for as long as they were productive, and companies would be less afraid to have two people filling one position. After all, it would cost them the same.
Old-fashioned defined-benefit pension plans are going away, replaced by arrangements in which employees save up for their own retirement. Thus, retiree benefits are playing less of a role in calculating compensation.
That leaves employer-based health coverage. It makes no more sense for companies to provide health coverage than it does for them to drop bags of groceries on each desk at the end of the day. But this is the system we're stuck with for now. Clearly, it's cheaper to insure one worker putting in eight hours than two, each doing four hours.
Obamacare does help workers wanting to start their own business or take part-time positions by ensuring affordable coverage through state health insurance exchanges. Too bad, though, that the health care reforms didn't just expand Medicare to everyone, paying for it with taxes.
That would have taken the burden of insuring workers off employers' backs. And bosses would more readily negotiate hours with their workers. Perhaps that will happen. Someday.
(A member of the Providence Journal editorial board, Froma Harrop writes a nationally syndicated column from that city. She has written for such diverse publications as The New York Times, Harper's Bazaar and Institutional Investor.)