In 2015, the German city of Gothenburg conducted a first experiment in which 70 nurses and caregivers spent a working day from 8 hours to only 6, keeping the same salary. After 18 months, municipal staff registered fewer sick leave and increased their productivity, organizing up to 85% more activities with the elderly they cared for, but only the pilot test cost the city council 1.3 million euros, to cover the hours that were left empty. The councilor who promoted the idea, Daniel Bernmar, summarized: “it is clear that everything works better with a 6-hour shift, but that we cannot afford it without raising taxes.”
In 2018, the IG Metall union reached an agreement with the employer to give part of its 2.3 million members the possibility of opting for a 28-hour week for two years, prorating their salary, or for 40-hour days for what they wanted to “cover productive gaps.” More than 700 companies in southern Germany participate in this second experiment, including Daimler, ZF and Bosch, but they have been proportionally very few workers interested, so that the tool had been becoming obsolete until the arrival of the coronavirus.
Among the battery of measures taken by the German government against the recession, are subsidies for reduced working hours, to which companies have adhered in a large percentage due to the production stoppage. This formula was first devised by Volkswagen, which went through the deep crisis in the 1990s thanks to the 28.8-hour week agreed with the union. The Merkel government already applied this recipe in the previous crisis, starting in 2008, and it was successful again. In Germany, therefore, there are no ERTEs, but reductions in working hours with state aid to compensate for the loss of wages. And the IG Metall union is now demanding that the figure be fixed in the agreements and that these subsidies be extended for two years, given that without state aid, the 28-hour day has proven not to be viable neither for workers nor for industry . Industry bosses seem open to the idea, while the service sector is reticent.
However, in the position paper on the 28-hour day, the Die Linke (The Left) party is against it. Its leader, Katja Kipping, explains that “although it is true that for the current standards of living the 40-hour workday is not acceptable, we also see that it would be women and young people who would mostly obtain voluntary 28-hour workdays, so that undesirable social schemes would take hold. That’s why we think a mandatory 30-hour shift for all workers it would lead to a more balanced social situation.
In southern Germany, however, various other possibilities have been experimented with. The collective agreements of the metallurgical and electrical industry of Baden-Württemberg (TV Besch), allow that the working hours are reduced up to 10%, up to 31.5 hours per week, without salary compensation. In addition, the collective agreement on work and short-time employment (TV KB) provides for the option of “collectively agreed short-time work”, which means 28 hours a week, and even 26, with partial salary compensation for lost work hours. In a four-day week, this corresponds to an increase in the cost of the hours of work performed of just under 4%.
Moreover, the German experience shows that for small businesses the damage is very significant. Lasse Rheingans, who ran a company in Bielefeld in 2017, a digitization agency with 12 employees, offered them a shift from 8 to 13 for a year and later concluded that, although during the first months the activity did not suffer too much, with as time went by, there was a lack of intercommunication between departments, fewer ideas emerged and there was less discussion about strategies. Additionally, employees found that they weren’t willing to be as flexible as that schedule required, because they had to take calls from the company or reply to emails outside the office and they recognized that problems arose both in professional development and in personal life.