Solution to Unemployment: Pay People to Work Shorter Hours

Solution to Unemployment: Pay People to Work Shorter Hours

Solution to Unemployment: Pay People to Work Shorter Hours

There is an easy way to get unemployed workers back to work: pay them to work shorter hours.


In the wake of the highest unemployment rate in twenty-five years, the Roosevelt Institute asked historians, economists and other public thinkers to reflect on the lessons of the New Deal and explore new, big ideas for how to get America back to work. The Nation is running selections from the Roosevelt Institute’s series on the New Deal 2.0 blog. Below, Dean Baker argues for a work-share program that would save 5 million jobs.

The unemployment rate is 10.2 percent and virtually certain to rise even higher in the months ahead. Even with the prospect of extended benefits, unemployment is still a crisis for the families affected, as they struggle to pay their mortgage or rent and cover other essential expenses. Millions will end up falling behind, losing their home–in some cases leading to homelessness and/or family break-ups.

Fortunately, there is an easy and quick way to begin to get these unemployed workers back to work. It involves paying workers to work shorter hours. The mechanism can take the form of a tax credit to employers. The government can give them a tax credit of up to $3,000 to shorten their workers’ hours while leaving their pay unchanged. The reduction in hours can take the form of paid sick days, paid family leave, shorter workweeks or longer vacations. The employer can choose the method that is best for her workers and the workplace.

If take-home pay is left unchanged as a result of the credit, then demand should be left unchanged. If workers are putting in fewer hours and demand is unchanged, then employers will need to hire more workers.

This logic is as simple as it gets. The process is also quick and cheap. In principle, the government can go this route to save jobs at a cost of a bit more than $20,000 per job–far less than the cost per job saved through the stimulus package.

Germany has used this policy to keep its unemployment rate at 7.6 percent, about the same as it was before the recession. Imagine if workers in the United States, like workers in Germany, were dealing with the recession by putting in four-day weeks (while getting paid for five) or getting an extra two weeks of paid vacation. This sure beats being unemployed.

Seventeen states already have a “work-share” program in place that allows employers to use unemployment insurance money to cover a reduction in work hours, without a corresponding reduction in pay. More than 100,000 layoffs have been prevented as result of this program.

Senator Jack Reed, a Democrat from Rhode Island, has a bill that would increase funding for work-share programs and remove some of the bureaucracy. The bill also provides start-up money for the states that don’t have programs.

The Reed bill would be a big step towards following the Germany model, taking advantage of a program that is already in place. It could quickly make a big dent in the unemployment rate, by preserving many of the jobs that are now being lost.

In this respect, it is important to clear up a common confusion about the economy. The monthly job growth number is a net figure. Approximately 4 million people leave their jobs every month, half involuntarily. We have job growth if we either create more than 4 million jobs or reduce the number of jobs lost below 4 million.

If a work share program reduced involuntary job loss by 20 percent, or 400,000 per month, it would have the same effect as adding 400,000 new jobs. Over a full year, this would generate nearly 5 million new jobs. This would be a quick and effective way to reduce unemployment.

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