How well will the four-day work week work?

Published 4:22 pm Monday, August 11, 2008

The City of Picayune and several other municipalities in Mississippi and around the nation, including cities in the state of Utah, have gone to the four-day work week as a means of saving energy.

Some school districts elsewhere in the nation also have gone to the four-day school week to save both fuel costs associated with busing and with other energy costs associated with air conditioning, heating and lighting school buildings.

I approve of any efforts to save energy, especially successful ones. This move to the four-day work week concerns me, however. While it may save energy for government and businesses moving to that schedule, individuals may not be saving any energy, and probably will be using more than they now are.

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Those who turn up their thermostats in the summer to save on air conditioning costs and down during the winter to save on heating costs are going to be keeping those thermostats in their comfort zone during their normal working hours for three days a week now rather than for two days.

I suspect more energy will be used by these individuals than would be used by operating buildings or plants where the workers would be spending that fifth day otherwise. That will mean not only more total energy is being used, but the individual family is going to have to budget for this additional cost on the same salary it had coming in when it was saving energy by turning off lights and raising or lowering the thermostat for five days a week. Then there is all that day-time television. Televisions use an awful lot of electricity.

Also, with more time off, families are going to be tempted to take that vehicle that spent its working day parked somewhere for at least the period the worker was at work and travel around, thus burning more gasoline. Again, that doesn’t save any energy. It probably means greater energy usage and we will see those gasoline prices climbing even more rapidly.

Purists will say those with the extra time should make a point of finding non-energy using means of passing the time. I suspect there will be a lot of hype about bicycling to and from various places, or walking and so on. Unfortunately, that depends on people doing those things and people don’t just change habits overnight.

Frankly, I agree with the purists, but I am a realist.

I think the four-day work week is an idea that may sound good, but which is ineffective in saving a net amount of energy. Those selling the idea need to sell it truthfully. The only ones saving energy will be the governments or businesses going to the four-day work week.

Also, I fear this is going to make doing business with government more difficult than it already is. Now, you will have only four days in which to find some time on your lunch hour, along with everyone else, to make it to a government office such as the driver’s license office, the tax office and so on.

If businesses went to having four-day work weeks and banks and the government operated five days a week, I can see a lot less frustration, if not energy savings, for taxpayers and bank customers. As for energy savings, obviously I have my doubts about whether any energy actually will be saved.

Some tax money may be saved. However, I suspect those savings in taxes won’t offset, or even come close to offsetting, the costs associated with increased energy usage by the individuals who now have three days a week to keep their homes lighted and comfortable during the day and three days a week to drive to stores, beaches, parks and other locations.

I don’t know if those who are proposing the four-day work week have truly thought through the consequences of what the shortened week may mean, but I suspect they haven’t, at least not most of them.

I think now is the time, though, for all of us to consider this movement in a rational way and determine if perhaps there aren’t other, more effective, ways of working that will actually save energy. Perhaps reducing light-bulb wattage, raising workplace thermostats during the summer and lowering them during the winter by a small increment that doesn’t affect productivity or adding insulation where possible might do a better job of saving energy.

Perhaps the rising energy costs now make it more feasible to make changes in industrial and other business processes that would save energy. I think there are lots of things we can do it, but I do believe we need to think carefully about the proposals and determine if saving energy in one place is offset, or more than offset, by increased energy usage elsewhere.

Saving energy shouldn’t be just about saving money, though certainly It should include that in the formula for it is the spur that goads us. What it should mean is actually a net reduction in energy usage by all involved in whatever change is made with the goal of saving energy. I fear the four-day work week doesn’t do that.