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BEZAWADA: U.S. should emulate French workforce law

Column: Traipse the Fine Line

Nineteen years ago, the French Socialist Party made a certain practice into law to the envy of the global workforce: Reduce the mandatory working week in France from 39 hours to 35. 

In comparison, according to a national Gallup poll taken in 2014, Americans work on average 9.4 hours daily, approximately 47 hours per week.

It sounds like utopia, but the reality is far more nuanced and hardly as simple as it seems.

The decision to shorten France’s workweek had two goals. The first was to reduce unemployment. “ … By cutting everyone’s work hours by about 10%, companies would be forced to hire more people to make up for the loss,” said Richard Alexander, an American expatriate and a former project manager for a large company in central France. 

Unemployment in France is a controversial subject resulting in part by its labor code, wryly said to be longer than the Bible and considered by the French to be largely outdated compared to how interconnected the rest of Europe is becoming. Interpreting such a text is understandably a monumental task, and the unemployment rate was teetering too close to dangerous economic levels to spend valuable time deciphering it. 

In the years prior to 2000, the French unemployment rate peaked at approximately 11% in 1997. The year the law was passed, it dropped to 8.58%, breaking almost a decade-long series of double-digit unemployment rates. 

Unfortunately, after a steady decline, the Great Recession saw a 2% jump in unemployment in 2009, and it has been rising since then. But, recession aside, the expanding French economy combined with the effects of the work law are clear: an immediate plunge in unemployment.

The second goal was to “improve the quality of work life for French workers,” Alexander said. Culturally, French people place high value on a healthy work-life balance. France has the fifth-highest number of vacation days in the world, with the average employee enjoying five weeks of paid leave and 11 national holidays. 

The U.S. “offers no legally mandated annual leave,” according to BBC News. French workers also enjoy a higher-than-average amount of leisure time, dedicating approximately 15 hours daily to their private lives. 

It comes as no surprise, then, that French employees and even students are granted a 2-hour lunch break before work or school resumes (with regional differences — breaks are shorter in Paris and other larger cities). Maintaining a family, pursuing additional education or a personal hobby, having social excursions and even ensuring a healthy digestion process are among the many reasons the French pushed for this law to pass. 

The results are optimistic: A government evaluation showed that the reduction in working time has had a positive impact on the people.

This is all well and good, until you hear from people like Olivier, an employee for a multinational construction company based in France: “I work about 45 to 50 hours a week, from 09:00 till 19:30,” Olivier said.

So what is the reality?

French economist Jean-Marie Perbost stated that 35 hours is “simply a threshold above which overtime or rest days start to kick in.” White-collared workers usually work on given tasks until they are done, just like their American peers. The key difference is compensation. 

French employees are entitled to financial compensation for overtime work — past 35 hours — as well as “rest days” beyond their designated vacation allotment to make up for the extra hours spent working. Essentially, a French employee can work for up to 60 hours per week as long as they “are compensated with ‘rest days’ that bring (their) average work week down to 35 hours," Alexander said. 

Indeed, according to Conseil national des barreaux (CNB), France’s national bar association, “44% of lawyers in the country logged more than 55 hours on a weekly basis in 2008.” Many American attorneys work similar hours every week.

Although French workers theoretically have a lot more free time, they have a high labor productivity, or the amount of goods and services produced per hour of work. This is largely attributed to the decrease in stress associated with greater time off, plus adequate compensation for overtime work.

With the poor economic prospects and heightening expectations for millennials entering the American workforce and the growing movement advocating for mental health awareness, corporations based in America would do well to emulate the working practices of those in France. 

Happy employees are constantly overlooked in favor of happy customers, which threatens to decrease the quality and quantity of output. In fact, demand both for careers in a company and products from a company can only grow should it choose to invest revenue in the health and wellness of its workers.

Sruti Bezawada is a Rutgers Business School sophomore majoring in marketing and double-minoring in japanese and digital communications and information media. Her column, “Traipse the Fine Line,” runs every alternate Tuesday.


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