UPDATE, March 2017: I’m completely perplexed that this issue is coming up now that the County is widely regarded as being in a financial crisis. Why would people respond to a cash shortage at the County by saying that employees should go back to a 5-day workweek? In the middle of this crisis, and voluntary unpaid leave for some employees, and the threat of involuntary furloughs, it isn’t a great time to be a County employee – it’s scary, demoralizing and worrying. And the response of some is to say, ‘Now’s the time to take away their 3-day weekends’? If anything, it’s the opposite: this is a time to double down on employee morale at a time when it’s in short supply.
Politics sometimes provides a forum for issues to emerge in public that would otherwise be chattered about in more private settings. One such forum came into existence last week in the form of the Meet the Candidates event in Parker, which was very well handled by the Parker Area Chamber of Commerce and deftly moderated by Mary Hamilton.
And the issues that were on the minds of the candidates and members of the public were interesting and varied. They included things like:
- Cooperation between local government entities
- Services for seniors
- Alleged financial trouble at the County
- Water table depletion
- How to increase revenue
- Rogue cattle destroying property
- Shelter for transfer site operators
- The quality of County websites
- Everything to do with the Sheriff’s Office.
But the one that caught my ear this time was about the County’s 4-day workweek. A few years ago, La Paz County enacted what’s commonly called the 4/10 shift for County employees: 4 days a week, 10 hours per day. It’s still 40 hours per week, just spread over 4 days instead of over 5 days.
They did this for a few stated reasons, but if memory serves me correctly, the most commonly-cited rationale was that the County could potentially save some money during hard economic times if they could close Fridays, pushing some work hours out of the peak utility usage window and that sort of thing. I don’t really have any opinion on whether the County saves money this way or not. It seems likely that it would save at least a little.
Last week at Meet the Candidates, one questioner (who ended up leaving after being told he couldn’t keep interrupting the candidates) asked why the County needs a 4-day workweek, and made some negative comments about it. At another time, Tony Rogers bragged that he had changed the 4-day workweek at the County Attorney’s Office back to a 5-day week after he was elected in 2012.
Clearly, some people don’t like the concept! Often, it’s claimed that the reasons they don’t like it are about ‘customer service’; that by being closed Fridays, the County isn’t serving the taxpayers well.
But that’s nonsense. The real reason people don’t like the 4-day workweek is that they don’t think it’s fair. Why should ‘regular people’ be stuck with normal two-day weekends while County employees (in those ‘cushy’ County jobs) get three days off every week? Don’t they know they work for us? Don’t they see how we work our asses off, some of us sweating in the heat with power tools in our hands, while they saunter around their air-conditioned offices for 4 days and then have time for road trips on weekends? And then I can’t walk in there on a Friday to pay my tax bill? How dare they!
Course, nobody complains when they can’t pay their tax bill on a Saturday. This special outrage is reserved for Fridays alone, because it represents the day they have to work while County employees don’t. That’s very telling. (And aren’t there potential ways to rotate 4-day employees through a 5-day workweek anyway? Walmart is open 7 days, but nobody thinks its employees should have to work all of them every week.)
See, this argument isn’t rational. It’s psychological. Ever see that video clip where one monkey is given cucumber while the other one gets grapes? The monkey who has to make do with cucumbers while his buddy gets delicious, juicy grapes goes crazy. He wants that other monkey to suffer with cucumbers like him! It’s called social inequity aversion, it’s a very well-understood psychological fact and we all have it.
But it doesn’t make sense to indulge our lesser instincts when it affects real people. There are of course services that are important to provide, and some departments need to be open at specific times for specific reasons. Yet there’s no reason the County can’t serve the public well and support a 4-day workweek for employees at the same time.
Here are a few reasons to support the 4-day workweek for County employees:
It’s a morale booster in an economy that can’t support good wages
As one Parker Live commenter asked, “Do you know that County employees have not had a raise in years? I am not talking about a COLA raise. I am talking about a merit raise. This effects their retirement and their living now.”
This is a simple fact: when there ain’t much money for the kinds of raises that are standard elsewhere, or even to pay wages that are competitive with similar jobs elsewhere in Arizona, your options are limited if you want to attract good employees, keep them, and give them a chance at good working morale.
I think people have a tendency to underestimate the importance of employee morale in the running of organizations in general. But it’s incompatible to say that you want better services from the County and to simultaneously deny the morale boosters you can offer the employees who provide those services. If you can’t give competitive wages for fiscal reasons, three-day weekends are a decent gesture in substitute.
The internet changes the equation
Not only do good government websites reduce or eliminate the need for most office visits by members of the public in the first place, but the internet is currently shaking up the entire workplace in general. Because more and more employees have access to email, work servers and databases and other things on their smartphones, tablets and laptops, the office becomes mobile and the need to be shackled to a desk in traditional ways disappears. Over time, smart workplaces are embracing these changes and encouraging their careful implementation, not rolling them back and insisting on old-fashioned models of work practices.
Put the County’s business online, ensure that it works, and get with the program. It’ll matter much less in the future exactly when the Assessor’s, Treasurer’s and Recorder’s workers are sitting behind their desks in person.
It can actually increase productivity
It sounds counterintuitive, but one reason the so-called ‘compressed workweek’ is in favor in Human Resources departments across America these days is that those departments have often noted increases in productivity. In other words, instead of getting less work done because they’re only working 4 days a week, they’re getting more work done. There are some theories on why this could be: maybe employees are needing to take less time out for doctor’s appointments and MVD visits and the like because they can now use that extra day to do it; perhaps the knowledge that they have to get everything done by Thursday makes them more focused; or it could just all come back to morale (happier employees tend to be more productive too).
It improves work-life balance
This final one is just for those who actually care about County employees and their lives (if that’s not you, feel free to skip this section). The 4-day workweek gives those employees a bit more uninterrupted time to do the other things in life: errands, housework, family time, friendships, elder care, childcare, recreation, visits out of town, you name it. It is “…a great way to provide employees the flexibility to meet the demands of work and life outside of work,” says Lisa Horn, co-leader of the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) Workplace Flexibility Initiative. Many stated initiatives talk about the importance of good lifestyles and good health; the 4-day workweek encourages good work-life balance and should be embraced for that reason alone as much as possible.
Besides all of that, to take it away now would be a slap in the face to good, hardworking County employees who have accepted it gratefully as part of their employment package over time and don’t deserve the affront.
So, why should County employees get grapes while many other La Paz County citizens get cucumbers? Well maybe the rest of us should encourage open-mindedness about the shape of the wider workweek too. This isn’t a zero sum game where there has to be losers!
But meantime, if what we’re talking about right now is County policy, I think there’s plenty of reason to keep the 4-day workweek and to loudly embrace it as the virtue it is, rather than sheepishly defending it in whispers as though it’s an embarrassment of some kind, or opposing it completely, as some apparently still do.