The average work week may not be so average

David Gura Jan 6, 2012

Stacey Vanek Smith: If you feel like your boss has been piling more tasks on you or that you keep being asked to do more with less, you’re probably onto something. Since the financial crisis, employers have pushed employees to be more productive. Today’s jobs report will also give us some new data on how productive we were in December.

From Washington, Marketplace’s David Gura reports.

David Gura: Dr. Sandra Spore works in Stillwater, Minn. Business is down and her clinic has had to cut back. The receptionist used to be full-time. Now, Spore says, it’s a part-time position. That’s all they can afford. So even though Spore is a physician, she has to pitch in around the office.

Sandra Spore: I’m doing more of the answering the phone, and the scheduling, and answering people’s questions.

Spore has to work harder. She has to be more productive.

Spore: I have to say, it’s harder than I thought it was going to be.

The same thing is happening across the country -– in clinics and restaurants, in firms and factories. Michael Greenstone is an economist at M.I.T., and he says employers expect employees to do more work, to work longer hours.

Michael Greenstone: What we’re waiting for in the labor market is for firms to conclude that coming demand is large enough that it can’t be met by squeezing more out of their existing workers or machines.

That they can justify hiring. In the meantime, companies are pushing workers to do as much as they can -– more than they’re used to. Gary Burtless is a fellow at the Brookings Institution. He says that, when times are tough, employers have the upper hand.

Gary Burtless: Look, there’s a lot of evidence that the bargaining power of workers in this job market is very weak.

No one wants to be out of work, but that’s especially true when the unemployment rate is as high as it is.

Burtless: When workers think that there’s a good chance that they can be dismissed for putting in less than their best effort, they might work awfully hard for a long time.

Workers are reluctant to go on vacation. They’re afraid to complain. And they’re less likely to quit without another job lined up. Burtless says that, since the recession set in, the quit rate has dropped by a third.

But there’s only so much workers can do to boost productivity before they hit a breaking point, and usually that’s when companies realize there’s an upturn in business. M.I.T. economist Michael Greenstone says we’re not there yet; employers have a list of what they’re waiting for.

Greenstone: Numbers 1, 2, and 3 are more demand.

In Washington, I’m David Gura for Marketplace.

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