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April 04, 2022

Cutting back on work during Covid: How was it done?

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Unemployment in the US and elsewhere rose drastically during the Covid crisis, rising from 3.5% in February 2020 to an average of 7.7% from May 2020 through June 2021. Employment fell nearly commensurately, from 158.9 million workers to an average 148.1 million workers. 

The US economy took a tremendous “hit” during this period—but the hit was very uneven: Among people actually working in February 2020, hours per week averaged 34.4. From May 2020 through June 2021, they averaged more, 34.7 hours in the official monthly data. Data from diaries recording how people spend their time present a slightly different picture: During 2019 those who worked at all put in 43.0 hours per week; from May 2020 through December 2020, workers put in only 40.2 hours. Taken together, the numbers show that those who worked during the worst of the pandemic bore some small part of the costs of the reduced demand for labor.

Unemployment rose (a lot); employment fell (a lot); and hours working fell too, although not so severely. But how was the decline in hours spread across the workweek? Did people work proportionately fewer hours each; did they cut back on the number of days that they worked; or was it some of both? (Ask yourself what you would have expected to happen—and don’t peek below!)

We can answer this question thanks to an exciting new data set collected by Alexander Bick of Arizona State University and Adam Blandin of Virginia Commonwealth University. Their large-scale survey covering May 2020–June 2021 mirrors the usual monthly US employment survey, including asking how many hours people worked in the week of the survey. Each month it also asked workers how many days they worked that week, and on how many days each week they worked in February 2020. 

In this survey weekly hours among workers also fell, by about 1.5%; but the entire drop was due to people working fewer days per week during Covid. In February 2020, 11.1% of surveyed workers put in four-day weeks, and 59.5% put in the usual five-day week. But from May 2020 to June 2021, 13.8% worked four days, and only 54.8% worked five days. The percentage of workers with three or fewer days also rose, by 2 percentage points.

That the entire cut in worktime occurred through a cut in days should not be surprising. Workers may have to commute to work and/or obtain childcare each day; and they may fear that the risk of contracting Covid from an additional hour at work on a day is low, while the risk from an extra day commuting or spent at the workplace is substantial. These represent daily fixed costs of work. They give workers an incentive to spread the same amount of work time across fewer days. They also give employers the same incentive—fitting a person into a schedule on a given day may be costly, but an extra hour on a day likely costs less.

With the worst of the pandemic likely over, I expect we’ll see a partial return to pre-pandemic patterns of days worked. But workers and employers have learned about the gains to working on fewer days, and it’s likely that the pandemic has caused a permanent shift to more four-day work schedules.

© Daniel S. Hamermesh

Daniel S. Hamermesh is professor emeritus at the University of Texas at Austin and at Royal Holloway University of London, and is Editor-in-Chief of IZA World of Labor.

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