The Case for a Four-Day Workweek in Maryland

“Given the obvious success of reducing work hours that we’re seeing in businesses across the country and across the world, it only stands to reason that Maryland should try this out.”

Illustration of a weekly calendar with stamps on Monday through Thursday, in front of the Maryland state building.
Tyler Comrie / The Atlantic

The Maryland State Capitol building is older than America. It is the only state capitol to have also served as the nation’s capital; in the country’s earliest days, Congress met in its chambers. To work in Annapolis is to operate in the shadow of history. So maybe that explains why, 246 years into the American project, one state lawmaker sees his four-day-workweek bill as carrying on in the tradition of the ideals of the Declaration of Independence. That, or it’s just a good hook.

“The Framers put in ‘Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness,’” Vaughn Stewart, one of the bill’s co-sponsors, told me, emphasizing that last one. “This is really a larger conversation about where we are as a country, and whether we need to ask ourselves, for the first time in almost a century, if there is something better than living to work.”

The very buzzy—but actually kind of modest—bill would create what is effectively a five-year experiment with a four-day workweek, creating $750,000 in tax credits for Maryland businesses per year over five years in exchange for them shortening their hours and handing over data to the state on how it goes. “It’s going to be really hard for me to persuade my colleagues that the time is now for this idea if the only data we have come from Scotland,” Stewart explained to me. “That’s just not going to be as persuasive as if it comes from Scotland, Maryland.” (Yes, that’s a real place.)

Despite the practical approach, Stewart is a hard-core believer in the four-day workweek as the future. When I got on the phone with him last week, we spoke about the bill, work’s place in American life, and how surviving cancer shifted his perspective.

Our conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Caroline Mimbs Nyce: Give me the elevator pitch for this bill. Why should it get passed?

Vaughn Stewart: There has been an explosion of studies in the past year or two about the idea of companies reducing work hours. And the results of those studies have been, in my view, stunning. The employees loved working fewer hours. But what was really surprising is that the companies themselves reported greater productivity and ultimately greater profits. At the same time, companies outside of the context of an experiment are also choosing to make this shift.

So the elevator pitch is: Given the obvious success of reducing work hours that we’re seeing in businesses across the country and across the world, it only stands to reason that Maryland should try this out.

Nyce: Why Maryland?

Stewart: Well, Maryland is where I live, so I can’t put it in state legislation anywhere else. (Laughs.)

Nyce: Fair, but do you think Maryland is a particularly good candidate for this?

Stewart: Yeah, I think so. One of Maryland’s nicknames is actually “America in Miniature.” This idea has been studied in the United States to some extent but has been studied more heavily in Europe. The point of the bill is to get data that’s more local and more relevant to us. You can make the case that Maryland—because it has so many different slices to it and so many different parts and so many distinct cultures and economies—is more representative of the entire United States than most other states.

Nyce: And why solve this in the public sector? If the incentives are there, why not let the private sector figure it out and move that way naturally?

Stewart: That’s happening to some extent. But two things: One, I think having the public sector get involved serves as a gentle nudge in this direction. Inertia is a powerful force.

Second, it’s not so much that the public sector is getting involved in private businesses as it is that we’re paying companies using tax credits to collect data for us and share the data. At the end of the five-year pilot project, we’ll have this trove of data that we can use to gauge whether this was successful.

There have been four-day-workweek bills in the U.S. House and in California that essentially required companies to pay overtime after 32 hours. That’s a really clean and also free way for the government to go about this. But it’s also extremely heavy-handed. I think probably the reason those bills haven’t gone anywhere is that companies come out in full force to rail against government intervention in the marketplace.

What’s unique and new about this approach that we’re trying in Maryland is that we’re not forcing any companies to do anything they don’t want to do. Rather than going to the hearing for the bill with every industry group cursing my name, hopefully I can go to the bill hearing with all of them standing beside me.

Nyce: We’re talking a lot about the practical politics of this. How much of a philosophical believer in the four-day workweek are you?

Stewart: I’m a believer. I definitely think that we need more Maryland-specific data if we’re going to make any future steps or commit any more money to it. But ultimately, I’m not a neutral observer—I’m not a social scientist; I’m an advocate for this.

Nyce: But you have to play the game a little?

Stewart: Yeah, of course. I mean, it’s not a game. We need to make forward progress. If we want to convince people—workers, other policy makers, business owners—that this is the way forward, we need more study results that are specific to relevant communities.

It’s going to be really hard for me to persuade my colleagues that the time is now for this idea if the only data we have come from Scotland. That’s just not going to be as persuasive as if it comes from Scotland, Maryland, and Berlin, Maryland, and Cambridge, Maryland.

Nyce: There are a lot of European-named cities in Maryland.

Stewart: I just rattled them out like that too; I’m actually kind of impressed with myself.

I’m not at all a dispassionate observer of this. I very much think that this is the way of the future. This is the original American dream. The thought was always that we were going to continue to be more and more productive and work less and less. But at a certain point, we stalled out.

It was extremely radical when Henry Ford moved to a five-day workweek. People were shocked. People even called it anti-biblical, because the Bible said there was only one rest day. The labor movement took this as their cause célèbre, and over a grinding series of decades, they were able to force states and the federal government to institute a five-day week as a matter of law. But it’s been 100 years. Somewhere in the ’80s or ’90s, we got sort of off track. Now you hear more about, like, the #grindset than anything about reduced work hours.

Nyce: So you’re really viewing this in the long arc of American labor history. Do you ever have any personal doubts?

Stewart: I do think that there’s one big question mark with this idea, at least for right now, which is: How do we make sure that the effects reverberate across the economic spectrum? Because right now, with the exception of maybe some hospitals cutting hours for nurses, the companies that have made this step so far are Kickstarter, Shake Shack, Shopify. Typically, white-collar employees are the ones benefiting from more flexible schedules and reduced schedules,—just like how in the pandemic, white-collar employees benefited from more flexible time and flexibility to come into the office, whereas blue-collar workers didn’t get that break. They still had to go in every day and punch a clock, even if it meant that they were going to expose themselves to getting sick.

The tricky thing here is that there’s a difference between salaried workers and hourly workers. And we’ve got to figure out a way to make sure that this bill—or this movement—doesn’t become something that is felt most viscerally by people that already are doing pretty well. We want to make sure that this is an economy-wide transformation, that if it helps any group in particular, it helps those who are working-class the most—because they’re the ones who have borne the weight of America’s overworked culture for the past several decades.

Nyce: Are there any criticisms of the bill that you just flat out don’t agree with?

Stewart: First of all, I don’t think I’ve ever introduced a bill that is just this broadly popular. There was a poll on this issue recently and 92 percent of Americans like the idea of reducing work hours.

You don’t really hear a lot of good-faith criticisms. Probably the criticism that is valid, but that I just don’t agree with, is the sort of quasi-libertarian idea that the state of Maryland just shouldn’t care about this—that we shouldn’t meddle in the affairs of private businesses. There’s nothing more fundamentally connected to a Marylander’s quality of life than how much free time they have. So the idea that that would not be in the purview of policy makers to me is insane.

But even more than that, it’s hypocritical. I’ve heard from several colleagues who, when past tax cuts or tax credits for corporations have come up, couldn’t have been more enthusiastic to give those away. But now all of a sudden they’re crying libertarian.

Nyce: Why do you think that is?

Stewart: This bill is connected with the idea of improving the day-to-day lives of regular people. And I think for people who are ideologically committed to comforting the comfortable, it’s an anathema that they would support something that cuts costs for companies but through the lens of trying to make workers’ lives a little bit more whole.

Nyce: Like your colleagues at the statehouse?

Stewart: Yeah. I have colleagues in the other party who applauded, for example, when President Donald Trump cut taxes for corporations. Now, I don’t have any indication there’s going to be widespread Republican opposition to this bill. But I have heard a couple of quotes in the media from some of my colleagues who seem like maybe they’re going to oppose this on the grounds of laissez-faire capitalism—let the markets work.

But honestly, I haven’t really heard very much pushback at all about this. There has been an explosion of interest in the bill.

This is my fifth year in the General Assembly. This bill has attracted more attention from my colleagues, from interest groups, and from the media than every other bill I’ve ever put in has combined. And, like, 95 percent of the interest has been positive.

Nyce: We talked through one philosophical criticism from libertarians about the role of the state. That’s pretty much their whole gig. I wonder if there’s a practical criticism here: Why is this something Maryland should spend money on versus all the other issues that are facing the state at any given time?

Stewart: That’s a tough one. If the bill doesn’t pass, I think that’s what will doom it. Because even though we have a budget surplus in the state of Maryland, it certainly is the case that anytime you want to spend money, you’ve got to compete with every other priority under the sun. And I’m sure some of those priorities are more pressing and more important than this bill.

But this is only $750,000 of tax credits. This is not going to break the bank in the grand scheme of the state budget. And I would add that there’s scarcely anything more important to humanity than free time.

Nyce: Well … like, health. Maybe “not dying of the coronavirus.”

Stewart: Sure. Yeah, I mean, “not dying.”

The Framers put in “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” Certainly life is important. We want you all to be healthy. Liberties are important as well, obviously, and all the different freedoms we enjoy and making sure that those hold true. But pursuit of happiness is something that is also really important. This is really a larger conversation about where we are as a country, and whether we need to ask ourselves, for the first time in almost a century, if there is something better than living to work. America once stood for better ideals than just eternally increasing wealth and everlasting consumerism.

The reason I get so fired up about this is I’ve actually had cancer twice.

Nyce: I’m so sorry to hear that.

Stewart: No, no, I appreciate it. And I’m all good now. It kind of puts it in perspective—all the different tropes and truisms and clichés about realizing that nobody’s guaranteed tomorrow. I think when you have that experience at such a young age, you realize how important time is. Time is a gift. And so the idea that there would be a bill but also a larger movement about reclaiming some of that time for ourselves—because it’s finite for all of us—I think that that has some real power for a lot of people. Whether they have gone through an illness or an accident or they’ve watched a parent or a grandparent get older, I think people realize somewhere deep in their bones that their time is valuable. And they want to reclaim some of it for themselves.