AI and automation justify shorter workweek, Democrats argue


Senate Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders (I-VT) questions witnesses with ranking member Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-LA) during a hearing about working hours in the Dirksen Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill on March 14, 2024 in Washington, DC.

Chip Somodevilla | Getty Images

Sen. Bernie Sanders and Senate Democrats cited advances in artificial intelligence and automation Thursday in their argument for a bill that would mandate a 32-hour federal workweek.

“Despite massive growth in technology and worker productivity, millions of workers in our country are working longer hours for low wages,” Sanders said after gaveling open a hearing of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions.

“The sad reality is Americans now work more hours than the people of any other wealthy nation,” the committee chair and Vermont independent said later.

The bill introduced by Sanders and Sen. Laphonza Butler, D-Calif., would reduce the standard workweek from 40 hours to 32 hours over a four-year period.

Employers would have to pay overtime compensation to nonexempt employees of 1.5 times the hourly rate for every hour worked past eight hours in a single day, and two times the hourly rate for every hour worked past 12 hours.

The bill also would guarantee that total weekly wages would not be cut as a result of the reduction in total hours worked.

Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif., has introduced a similar bill in the House of Representatives.

The bills come months after business leaders such as JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon and Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates predicted that people could within decades work as little as three days a week due to innovations in AI and automation.

Sanders and Democrats at Thursday’s hearing said that reducing the workweek would allow people to spend more time with family and on hobbies.

“A lot of people find value in work and I’m glad that they do, but a lot of people find more value by the institutions and the social clubs and the churches that they affiliate and spend time with outside of work,” said Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn.

Republicans slammed the plan, saying the mandate would destroy small businesses and would hurt industries such as retail stores, which need to be open six or more days per week.

“This would be napalm upon the fire of inflation,” said Sen. Bill Cassidy of Louisiana, the ranking Republican on the committee.

Another Republican on the panel, Sen. Mike Braun of Indiana, said, “I do disagree trying to do anything from this place that would impose upon the hundreds of businesses out there to where I just don’t think they could survive.”

In testimony to the committee, Boston College sociology professor Juliet Schor said her research shows that hourly productivity of both workers and management would rise as a result of a four-day, 32-hour workweek. Schor said her research also found that employees experienced increases in well-being outside of the office.

Jon Leland, chief strategy officer at the crowdfunding platform Kickstarter, testified that his company saw its goal achievement rate and employee retention soar after instituting a four-day workweek.

“People want to work but they want to work in a way that is balanced with the rest of their lives,” Leland told the panel.

But another witness, Liberty Vittert, disputed studies that have found higher productivity with a shorter workweek. Vitter said those productivity gains disappear over time.

“We don’t know yet what abilities AI is going to give us,” said Vittert, who is a professor of the practice of data science at Washington University in St. Louis.

Cassidy suggested holding a hearing on AI’s impact on the economy.

But he also said that it is unlikely that advances in that technology would allow most workers to reduce their hours.

“A mom-and-pop restaurant is not really seeing increased productivity from AI,” Cassidy said.

“They’re having trouble finding enough people to fill shifts.”

Read original article here.

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