Short Work Week Slow to Catch On in U.S.

May 26, 2003 -- The Memorial Day weekend is an extended weekend for most in the United States, but for many in France, a four-day workweek is as common as the late-evening dinner.

As one Frenchwoman told ABCNEWS — between leisurely sips of coffee — Parisians have "many hours for family and leisure and vacation." The woman was spotted at a café on a Friday — her day off.

Fridays in the United States, meanwhile, are just more "nose to the grindstone". The International Labor Organization found that Americans three years ago worked 1,978 hours — a 10 percent increase over the 1,779 they worked in 1973.

At the Economic Policy Institute in Washington, D.C., Paul Rupert works with companies to think differently than "Monday to Friday, morning to night."

He says the number of hours people put in at the office is a poor measure of what they're actually getting done, because many people who work long days end up doing personal tasks instead. A better solution, he says, is to focus on workers' results, contribution and output rather than time spent at the office.

"The ways of working that were adapted during the industrial models are reasonably dysfunctional with knowledge workers," says Rupert. "And that means that they actually make them less productive."

Still, Rupert says most employers would insist that they need their workers five days a week, and says they would ask, "'why would we give people four ten-hour days when I'm getting five ten-hour days now?'"

Abbreviated Hours Lengthen Service For Some

While few American companies operate on the four-day work week schedule, RBA Group in Morristown, NJ has offered workers a schedule of four days on, three days off for 31 years.

RBA President Bill Garro needed a lure to attract and keep employees at what was once a fledging architectural and engineering firm. His four-day work week was successful.

"A high percentage of people have been with us a long time… because (the shortened workweek) gets into the quality of life issue," Garro said.

Denise Da Cuhna has been with RBA for 16 years. She concedes that having her Fridays off translates into time to perform community service as a parks commissioner and spend time with her children.

"If I was working a fifth day, I would be spending my Saturdays busier and I would have to give up some of my children's activities," the engineer told ABCNEWS.

Less is Not Always More

In Fulton, Miss., it is difficult for American managers to get out of the five-day mentality. Workers at the Calloway County Clerk's office there happily adjusted to a four-day week — until a new boss came in.

Curtis Lee Quick has been at the clerk's office since January and says he often was approached by the public and other government agencies about the shortened schedule.

"The basic complaint was, 'I called… I tried to have something done… I was told that I couldn't get it done that day because someone wasn't available. I think that's an inconvenience," he said.

Quick made the unpopular decision to return to an 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. schedule, with staggered lunch hours, Monday through Friday — matching the courthouse hours.

The clerks at Calloway are now required to be at their desks on Fridays. "We're not excited about it," said Sandy Haymart, chief deputy clerk. "It's just the way it is."

ABCNEWS' Jackie Judd contributed to this report.