ObamaCare's 30-Hour Work Week: Fulfilling a Longtime Leftist Dream?

One summer during the early 1970s, I was given a document distributed by a protest group which came from the Students for a Democratic Society or one of its radical affiliates. The item pretended to present a comprehensive platform for reshaping a “just” society.


One of its key economic positions was something which recently, thanks to the passage and clumsy implementation thus far of the statist “train wreck” known as ObamaCare, has become a very hot topic: the idea of a 30-hour work week.

The radicals wanted to make it the law of the land. Since I had recently worked 48-hour weeks at a minimum-wage summer job washing dishes, I found their proposal interesting but completely unappealing. Why, after considering overtime, would I have wanted to take a 42 percent pay cut? Their simplistic answer was to make the minimum wage about twice its then-current level of $1.60 per hour, and to force employers to pay the same amount of money for only 30 hours of work. Even as a teenager, I was smart enough to know that as the person most recently hired, I would have been the first person fired if they had gotten their way.

It turns out that the idea of a 30-hour work week in the U.S. is at least nearly a century old. Its lineage ultimately goes back to Karl Marx’s long-discredited idea of “surplus labor.”

In 1919, the 30-hour week was a central but ultimately abandoned demand in nationwide negotiations between unionized coal companies and their United Mine Workers members. A measure mandating it passed the U.S. Senate during the early months of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s first term in 1933, but somehow failed to get through the Democrat-dominated “rubber stamp” House. Though that’s much further than the idea should have advanced, modern leftists are probably dreaming when they assert that such legislation “almost” become law. Master politician FDR publicly supported it, but insisted on so many conditions before he would consider it acceptable that he effectively killed the measure without the messiness of a veto.


The 30-hour week, with hourly wages raised by one-third so that no worker’s pay would suffer, often accompanied by a requirement to pay double-time instead of time-and-a-half for additional hours, remained a favorite goal of Big Labor during much of the 1960s, championed at different times by railway workers, the United Auto Workers, and others. The UAW’s Walter Reuther supported the idea while claiming, as interpreted by the Associated Press, that:

… he sees no end in sight for organized Labor’s demands for more pay and improved working conditions so long as the American economy keeps expanding.

… He said unions will never let up so long as they feel their demands are “economically just and economically necessary” and while science and technology continue to create more abundance.

The 30-hour work week became doomed in the late-1960s and early 1970s, thanks to two recessions and firms in other countries becoming legitimate industrial competitors. But it wasn’t forgotten, and is still considered an important goal in many leftist quarters.

As to ObamaCare, the law dictates the following: “The term ‘full-time employee’ means, with respect to any month, an employee who is employed on average at least 30 hours of service per week.” It also “requires any business with 50 or more full-time employees to provide at least the minimum level of government-defined health coverage to those employees.”


That new definition and its related requirement have given rise to a new guideline for small business survival. Known as “49 and 29,” it suggests that small firms would be very unwise to expand their operations beyond 49 full-time employees as defined by ObamaCare, or to allow part-timers to ever work more than 29 hours in a given week, lest they accidentally move into the law’s full-time category. Large companies also have an incentive to keep as many employees as possible below the 30-hour threshold.

Last Friday’s employment report — especially because the administration expressed pleasure with its results — makes you wonder if ObamaCare, among other things, wasn’t deliberately designed to force the country over the long-term to accept a work week of just under 30 hours, something we’ve always seen as part-time employment, as the “new normal” definition of a full-time worker.

Seasonally adjusted government figures for April show that the private sector added 176,000 jobs, while average total weekly hours worked dropped from 3.926 billion to 3.909 billion, a fall-off of almost 16.6 million hours. That difference, the largest since October 2009 when the economy was still losing jobs, caused the number of “full-time equivalent” jobs (i.e., total weekly hours divided by 40) to fall by a stunning 416,000.

Other evidence abounds that an already existing trend toward hiring part-time help has accelerated, while full-time work is stagnating. The economy is still almost 2.6 million jobs short of where it was at its January 2008 peak, but one area of employment has just fully recovered while reaching a seasonally adjusted all-time high of 2.66 million workers. That category would be workers at temporary help services, many (probably most) of whom are either part-timers or usually don’t put in consecutive months of full-time work. Since the recession as officially defined ended in June 2009, the economy has added 913,000 temps, a stunning 17 percent of all employment growth during that time.


Anecdotally, here are just a few of the employers who have officially or unofficially taken concrete steps to keep part-timers’ hours below 30, busted full-timers down to part-time, or both: KrogerCircle K SoutheastRegal Entertainment; the city of Long Beach, California; and the state of Virginia. Many others are taking their actions quietly to avoid leftist protests and intimidation.

At the rate things are going, it shouldn’t be too many more months before everyone will have to admit that ObamaCare’s 30-hour full-time employment definition is on track to permanently alter the nature of work and employment in America — and not for the better. Last week, even the Associated Press referred to a well-known economist who cited it as “a reason some employers are holding back” on hiring.

Is all of this really, as Democrats and their press apparatchiks want to claim, an “unintended consequence” of ObamaCare? Well, Obama himself said in 2008 that his presidential campaign was all about “fundamentally transforming the United States of America.” Why should we automatically assume that this isn’t a deliberate part of that transformation, leading to a slow but sure adoption of the radical left’s and Big Labor’s long-time dream?

(Thumbnail on PJM homepage based on a modified Shutterstock.com image.)


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