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This Day in History - 10.24.2011

The History of the 40 Hour Work Week

By David Somerville

On this day in history, the 40 hour workweek became law and officially went into effect nationwide on October 24th 1940.

Prior to the passing of the Fair Standards Labor Act (FSLA), many Americans worked an average of 10-14 hours a day, 6 days a week without the added benefits of health and dental plans or the guarantee of fair compensation. This workweek was due to the rise of industrial occupations that required workers to work long shifts at irregular intervals. Given that there were no solidified rules in place to protect workers at the time, many workers were often hurt or even killed while working on the job due to faulty equipment, lack of proper sleep, poor working conditions, etc. While there had been previous attempts made in the late 19th century to try and enact laws which would regulate the number of hours that American citizens worked each week, all prior attempts had failed. It was not until the rise of the automotive industry and the direct influence of President FDR that the FSLA was drafted and passed.

The FSLA states under what condition(s) and based on what grounds an individual may work during any given week. Aside from establishing a concrete numerical value which determines what the appropriate number of hours one could work in a given week, the act created a set of rules and regulations so as to ensure that that people, whom had previously been taken advantage of by the labor force, namely women and children, would be fairly compensated for their invested work and time. The act also made certain actions, which up until that point in history had be perfectly legitimate, illegal. For example, prior to the passing of the FSLA, there were no child labor laws protecting young children from being subjugated to long work days coupled with strenuous, physically demanding work. Additionally, there were no laws which established any sort of national standard in regards to minimum wage compensation. These and other things changed after the FSLA was passed and made into law

One of the first prominent businessmen to incorporate the 40 hour workweek into his business was auto maker, Henry Ford. Ford voluntarily incorporated the work standard for his factory employees on May 1, 1926, and for his office workers 3 months later. Then as it is now, the standard required employees who worked for Ford to work 8 hours a day, 5 days a week. After incorporating the standard to his business, an internal survey was conducted by Ford to see how the implementation was working for employees. The results of the survey were positive. Having gained the benefits of reduced production costs coupled with increased worker productivity, Ford hailed the 40 hour workweek standard to be a success.

Since the implementation of the FSLA, there have been changes and amendments. Most notably, the ‘time and a half’ clause, which requires employers to pay their employees 1.5 times the usual rate whenever the employee’s work is in excess of 40 hours in any given week. This clause doesn’t apply to all occupation types, but a great number of jobs do abide by this requirement. The historical significance of passing the FSLA cannot be overstated. Though no occupation is perfect, knowing that there are laws in place which help to ensure that employees are protected is something that every individual with a job should be grateful for.