While big business racks up historic profits, workplace life is becoming
more unbearable for the people who make the products and services.
It was a great year for labor -- if you worked at a call center in India, made
your living as a CEO or sold real estate to big-box stores. But deep in Cubicle
Nation, the average American worker remained on a fast track to the Industrial
Revolution, with soaring workweeks, declining wages, and health, pension and
vacation benefits vanishing faster than you can say job security.
Add to the siege outsourcing, cutbacks, the dismantling of ergonomics rules
and forced overtime -- all while business is racking up historic profits, the
most in 75 years -- and even a nearsighted dingo could see that the trends are
unsustainable for families, personal health, company medical plans or an informed
and involved citizenry. And completely unnecessary.
As all the productivity research shows, we can get the job done without finishing
ourselves off. So let's fire some of the worst habits that got us here and ring
in resolutions for a sane workplace in 2006:
Restore the 40-hour workweek. Almost 40 percent of us are
working more than 50 hours a week, not exactly what the Fair Labor Standards
Act intended when it set the 40-hour workweek in 1938. Chronic 11- and 12-hour
days result in lousy productivity, expensive mistakes, burnout, triple the risk
of heart attack and quadruple the risk of diabetes -- and leave families without
a quorum for dinner. Two-thirds of people who work more than 40 hours a week
report being highly stressed. Job stress costs American business more than $300
billion a year.
Establish rules for e-tools. The e-invasion is burying us
alive. Human resources departments and individuals need to set tough-love boundaries
that would determine message urgency, limit reflexive responses and establish
no-send zones (i.e., no forwarding of multiforwarded emails and absolutely no
work email at home or on vacation).
Give face time the pink slip. In the knowledge/digital age,
it doesn't matter where your body is; what counts is inside your head. More
telecommuting and flex schedules could save millions of dollars in office costs
and hours reclaimed from gridlock, while providing workers much-needed flexibility,
especially for time-crunched mothers.
Legalize vacations. Almost a third of American women and a
quarter of men don't get vacation leave anymore because, unlike 96 other countries,
the U.S. has no paid-leave law. Those who still get a vacation seldom get to
take the whole thing. The average American vacation unit in the travel business
is now a long weekend. It's barbaric. And myopic. Studies show that vacations
improve performance on the job, not to mention cut the risk of heart disease
and cure burnout. More than three-quarters of Americans say they would like
to have another week off, which they'd get with the three-week minimum paid-leave
law I've proposed.
Provide guaranteed sick leave. No one should have to lose
a job because they get ill. But across this land, hardworking people are getting
fired simply because their company offers no sick days and they got sick. It's
time to join 139 other countries with a minimum sick-leave law and protect those
who can't protect themselves. The Healthy Families Act by Sen. Edward M. Kennedy,
D-Mass., and Rep. Rosa L. DeLauro, D-Conn., would provide seven days of guaranteed
Make Lou Dobbs secretary of labor. The CNN anchorman's dogged
coverage of outsourcing and the forgotten middle-class worker has single-handedly
kept the plight of wage earners in the public eye. He's mad -- why aren't more
of us? -- and he's not going to take it.
Support a living wage. With the skyrocketing costs of gas,
food and rent, an increase in the minimum wage is long overdue. Consumers need
to support companies that pay a living wage, such as Costco, and shun ones that
Hold the back pats. This year, make a point of not supporting
workaholic martyrs ("I worked all night! I came in on the weekend!"
"Really? How lame.") who don't drive productivity but stress everyone
Tighten the salary test. One of the main -- and unacknowledged
-- drivers of overwork is the expanding definition of salaried employees. When
the Fair Labor Standards Act codified the salary designation, it was intended
to apply only to top administrators and managers, people who could hire and
fire. Over the last two decades, the classification has been stretched to include
more and more of us, particularly after new, elastic rules by the Bush administration
that could turn everyone from chefs to preschool teachers into salaried workers.
In addition, hundreds of thousands of hourly workers, from burger flippers to
insurance adjusters, are misclassified as salaried. The explosion of salaried
employees -- now 40 percent of all workers (including a huge jump in salaried
caregivers) -- is without doubt having major repercussions on divorce rates,
child care, civic responsibilities and drug sales. Wake up and smell the Paxil.
Provide paid childbirth leave to all working Americans. Family
values start here. Only 40 percent of American workers are eligible for the
12 weeks of unpaid leave under the Family Medical Leave Act, and fewer still
are brazen enough to actually take the time off. There are 163 countries that
offer paid family leave. The sterling bunch that doesn't includes Papua New
Guinea, Burkina Faso, Swaziland and the richest nation on the planet.
At a time when the people who make the products and services -- without whom
there would be no economy -- are considered disposable, I'd like to see political
candidates in '06 resolve to do a head count and tally the number of disaffected
wage earners desperate for leadership. This group includes not merely the 8
percent of private-sector workers who belong to unions but a vast legion of
American Dreamers, including 70-hour-a-week video game programmers, biotech
engineers and retail-sales moms pressed to the gibbering edge. One Republican
pollster has found that lack of time is the No. 1 issue for young working mothers,
more of a concern than Iraq and health care.
American workers have done their part, doubling productivity since 1969. How
about producing a workplace worthy of them in 2006?
Joe Robinson is the author of "Work
to Live: The Guide to Getting a Life."