Labor Day Special Report: 40-Hour Work Weeks, Weekends and Minimum Wage


If you've been with me for a while, much of this might be familiar, but you'll want to read on for this year's updates. If you've joined us within the past year, I hope you'll find this annual reflection informative.

Today is Labor Day in my home country, the United States of America, and in honor of that, I thought it might be fun to take a quick look at some important milestones in labor history. Yes, I know my idea of fun might be a little bizarre, but before we dig into our BBQ and beers, let's reflect for just a couple minutes on how we got here. It's been quite a roller coaster.

  • 1800 -- Most men, women and children in the U.S. work 14-hour days and 6-day weeks.
  • 1840 -- President Martin Van Buren issues an executive order to limit the work day for laborers and mechanics to 10 hours.
  • 1882 -- The first U.S. Labor Day celebration occurs in New York City on September 5.
  • 1884 -- The Central Labor Union selects the first Monday in September as Labor Day.
  • 1887 -- On February 1, Oregon becomes the first state to officially adopt Labor Day, followed later that year by Colorado, Massachusetts, New Jersey and New York.
  • 1894 -- The U.S. Congress passes legislation on June 28 making the first Monday in September a legal holiday.
  • 1918 -- The U.S. Supreme Court finds unconstitutional legislation banning child labor.
  • 1919 -- The International Labor Union proposes global work day limits of 8-9 hours.
  • 1922 -- The Fort Motor Company reduces the work week from 6 days to 5.
  • 1923 -- The U.S. Supreme Court overturns a Washington, D.C. law setting minimum wages for women.
  • 1926 -- The Ford Motor Company adopts a 40-hour work week on May 1.
  • 1933 -- The National Industrial Recovery Act sets the work week at 35-40 hours, the minimum wage to 12-15 a week, and restricts employment of children younger than 16.
  • 1935 -- The U.S. Supreme Court overturns most of the worker protections of the National Industrial Recovery Act.
  • 1936 -- The Walsh-Healey Public Contracts Act passes on June 30, requiring government contractors to adopt an 8-hour work day, a 40-hour work week, and to pay a minimum wage set by Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins. The act also prohibited employing boys under 16 and girls under 18. to employ only those over 16 years of age if they were boys or 18 years of age if they were girls, and to pay a "prevailing minimum wage" to be determined by the Secretary of Labor.
  • 1938 -- President Franklin D. Roosevelt signs the Fair Labor Standards Act into law, banning child labor, setting a 25-cents-an-hour minimum wage and requiring employers to provide overtime pay when the work week exceeds 44 hours. It's important to note, however, that the FLSA does not set a maximum number of hours for a work week (this exists in most developed countries outside the U.S.) and does not require employers to pay for sick time, vacation days or even federal holidays like Labor Day.

Fast-forward through World War II, the Korean War, the Civil Rights Movement, the Vietnam War and the rest of the 20th century to reach the present day.

  • 2011 -- Workers in the U.S. work an average of 7.6 hours per day. Workers between 25 and 54 with children worked an average of 8.8 hours per day.
  • 2013 -- On April 9, the euphemistically named Working Families Flexibility Act is introduced, amending FLSA to allow employers to replace overtime pay with compensatory time (what most of us call "comp time") at the rate of 1.5 hours for every hour of overtime.
  • June 2, 2014 -- The Seattle city council unanimously approved a citywide minimum wage of15 per hour. As with many worthwhile experiments with new ways of working, this one has some benefits and some downsides. Time will tell if this was the right decision for Seattle as a whole, but the move has certainly been a boon to many low-wage workers.
  • April 13, 2015 -- Inspired by happiness research by Nobel Prize-winning behavioral economist Daniel Kahnemann, Dan Price, CEO of Seattle-based Gravity Payments, announced that his company would pay none of its workers less than 50,000 per year by the end of 2015 and 70,000 per year by the end of 2017 (that works out to24.04 and33.65 per hour, assuming a standard 2,080-hour work year). Boy, did this one get an undue amount of attention (my article about it on LinkedIn has been viewed almost 34,000 times, and has 367 likes and 135 comments as of today)! This is a very limited experiment in a company of just over 120 employees, and it, too, has seen ups and downs, but it's too early to tell whether the overall impact on the community will be positive or negative.

It's mind-boggling to realize that some of the workplace conditions we take for granted -- weekends, 40-hour work weeks, minimum wage, the absence of child labor -- are less than 100 years old. And we might not know the impacts of some of the recent developments and changes for another 100 years.

What do you think of how far we've come? What does this all mean for work-life balance and corporate survival in today's workplace? And what about organized labor? It's been such an important part of developments over the centuries, but does it still have a place in the modern world of work? I'd love to hear your thoughts and reactions in the comments.

Slightly different versions of this article originally appeared on Labor Day 2013 and Labor Day 2014.