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Work 5 days a week? This US county is seeing success with 32-hour workweeks

May 3

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The island county of San Juan in Washington state was one of the first local governments in the U.S. to switch most of its employees to a 32-hour workweek. Now, six months in, the county is “encouraged” by what it has seen.

San Juan didn’t move to 32 hours out of sheer curiosity, like some international experiments. This decision came from labor negotiations where the county said it could not afford to foot the hourly wage increase pushed by the union over 40-hour workweeks.

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Instead, the negotiations settled on higher wages for 32-hour workweeks. Employees are making about the same amount overall but working a full day less. In turn, the county is saving $975,000 by not paying the higher wage over 40 hours.

The change appears to be a hit with workers. Seventy-eight percent of employees reported the job impacts their overall health and well-being more positively since switching to 32 hours, while 83% agree that it has improved their work-life balance. The county has also seen a 31% decrease in sick leave. 

That said, 12% of respondents anecdotally mentioned feeling stressed about the 32-hour workweek in a six-month check-in survey. The report said many of those reporting more stress are managers and supervisors tasked with maintaining productivity over fewer hours. 

But this math may be the most interesting part of the initial results. Going from 40 hours to 32 hours per week is a 20% drop in hours worked. However, in San Juan County, total employee hours worked only dropped 8% over this change, partly because the county has improved recruiting and retention, meaning fewer vacancies and a fuller workforce. 

The county is filling open positions 62% faster since making the change. In 2023, the county received just one local applicant in the first quarter. This year, it had 53 local applicants in the first quarter. 

Also, 78% of county staff hired after the 32-hour workweek said the schedule was the main factor they considered when applying. Separations from the county dropped 46% and 67% of employees said the 32-hour week is a huge factor in their decision to stay. 

It’s not all smooth sailing. Employees said when it comes to the public, about a third had positive feedback while the same amount had negative feedback. Some departments are only available four days a week while others are staggering the shifts to stay open five days a week. Emergency services and the sheriff’s office are not part of the 32-hour workweek arrangement. 

The county admits there are still some decisions and improvements to work out to ensure maximum staffing and customer service.

“Six months is really just a drop in the bucket, and I look forward to seeing what the one-year and two-year check-ins will reveal,” Interim County Manager Mark Tompkins said.

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[SIMONE DEL ROSARIO]

Can you imagine a dreamier place to work?

Not convinced? 

What if I told you the work week is only 32 hours?

That’s more like it. 

The island county of San Juan in Washington state was one of the first local governments in the U.S. to switch most of its employees to a 32-hour work week. Now six months in, the county is encouraged by what they’ve seen.

First, the county didn’t move to 32 hours out of sheer curiosity, as we’ve seen in some international experiments.

This came out of labor negotiations where the county says they could not afford the extra $1 million to foot the hourly wage increase pushed by the union for 40 hours a week. 

Instead, they settled on higher wages for 32-hour work weeks, so employees are making about the same overall but working a full day less. 

78% of employees reported their job impacts their overall health and well-being more positively since switching to 32 hours. 

83% agree that it has improved their work-life balance. And the county has seen a 31% decrease in sick leave. 

12% of respondents anecdotally mentioned feeling stressed about the 32-hour work week. The report says many of those are managers and supervisors tasked with maintaining productivity over fewer hours. 

Here’s what really stuck out to me about this report: the math of it all. 

If you go from 40 to 32-hour weeks, that’s a 20% drop in hours worked. But in San Juan County, employee hours worked only dropped 8% over this change. How is that possible? Part of it is the county is better at recruiting and retaining employees, meaning fewer vacancies and a fuller workforce. 

The county is filling open positions 62% faster since making the change. Last year, the county received just one local applicant in the first quarter. This year, they had 53 local applicants in the first quarter. 

78% of county staff hired after the 32-hour work week say the schedule was the main factor they considered when applying. 

Also, separations dropped 46%, and 67% of employees say the 32-hour week is a huge factor in their decision to stay. 

It’s not all smooth sailing. Employees say when it comes to the public, about a third had positive feedback, but the same amount had negative feedback. See, some departments are only available four days a week while others are staggering the shifts to stay open five. 

I should note, emergency services and the Sheriff’s office are not part of the 32-hour week. 

Interim County Manager Mark Tompkins said six months is just a drop in the bucket, 

let’s see what the 1-year and 2-year check-ins reveal as San Juan County charters new territory. 

I’m SDR for SAN.