Myth of 9-to-5 mars debate on work week

Workplace reforms are a hot topic these days as Americans struggle to balance work and family life. But in the media and in Congress, discussions of work revolve around the outmoded concept of the full-time, 9-to-5 job — something fewer and fewer Americans possess. Until we face up to the changing — and often harsh — realities of contemporary employment, meaningful workplace reform will be impossible to achieve.
The current congressional debate about changes to the federal labor law is a case in point. Touted as a family-friendly option, the flex-time proposal would retool the 40-hour work week to make it easier for employers to provide workers with flex-time schedules. The proposal would allow employees to forgo some overtime pay and stock up extra hours so that they could take time off at a later date. Such flexibility, proponents say, would allow workers to attend a child’s after-school hockey game or schedule a dental appointment.
While nearly all employees face difficulty scheduling personal and family time, the proposal would only affect hourly workers who are employed full time. That is, workers who are fortunate enough to work 40 hours a week — in the same place. But for the many employees who cobble together multiple part-time jobs to approximate a full-time income, all this fuss about flexibility is a moot point.
The most hotly contested provision of the flex-time plan is one that would retool the 40-hour work week to allow employers to substitute overtime pay for comp time. Overtime, unfortunately, is an alien concept to those workers who routinely work 50 or 60 hours a week at multiple jobs without racking up 40 hours for a single employer. Moonlighters are an increasing part of the U.S. labor force, and are one of the many groups who remain unaffected by the flex-time proposal. These workers, though they may put in 10 or 20 hours more than the full-time limit, don’t get time-and-a-half pay in the first place.
Many multiple jobholders would prefer to work a single, full-time job. But those are hard to find, especially for younger, less experienced workers — even those who are college graduates. In fact, some studies estimate that one-third of recent college graduates are not employed full time. The predicament of moonlighters is no better. They must often work double shifts or spend a great deal of time commuting from one job to another to another. To many in this situation, a 40-hour week, flexible or not, might come as a relief.
Although full-time workers may indeed need help juggling work and family, they are also more likely to earn a living wage. They are more likely to be endowed with benefits such as paid vacations, retirement plans and health insurance. The flex-time proposal primarily seems aimed at the “soccer mom” demographic group targeted by many of today’s politicians. But these people may be more the exception than the rule. To be truly relevant, any discussion of workplace reform must address the less-than-ideal situations of the underemployed, multiple jobholders and shift workers, whose jobs will likely be less amenable to flexibility.