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Job sharing vs. joblessness

By H.B. MakhloufH.B. Makhlouf is professor of business and public management at the University of the district of Columbia. / February 25, 1981



The Department of Labour recently reported that the number of workers who share their work schedules with their coworkers reached 2.2 million in 1980, up from 1.6 million in 1979. In the meantime, reports on unemployment indicated that over 7.8 million workers were out of work (about 7.6 percent of the labor force), and benefits for many of the jobless would soon expire.

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These figures suggest that jobs sharing is still exception, not the rule, when cuts in labor services are necessitated by economic downswings, or periodic supply/demand problems. Most employers find it less troublesome to lay off unneeded workers than try to plan -- and come to an agreement with employees and unions on -- a fair job-sharing formula. Unions have also been giveng more emphasis to supplementary unemployment benefits, severance pay, and protection of seniority rights than job sharing.

In the opinion of this writer, job sharing merits greater attention by all concerned: employers, employees, unions, and government. A joint effort by these parties, along with independent research and academic institutions, is needed to assess the feasibility and impact -- on workers, organizations, and the society at large -- of a wider application of job sharing in both private and public sectors.

What must be determined is: to what extent can unemployment be reduced through job sharing? Can it be a viable alternative to the traditional lay-off reduction-in-force measures which result in some workers losing their jobs while others remain unaffected? And what obstacles stand in the way of a universal application of job sharing during recessionary periods?

The advantages of job sharing could, in reality, go beyond helping to reduce the suffering of some of the millions of jobless workers and their families. It could have many other economic social contributions such as:

* Protecting the purchasing power and demand necessities; thus reducing the impact of economic downswings on basic and consumer products industries.

* Raising employee morale and productivity owing to an increased sense of security and faith in the system.

* Enhancing the team spirit within working organizations by making all workers fell that they are a valued part of a united whole, and that they are needed and appreciated by their employers in good as well as bad times. Such a feeling could also check the tide of excessive individualism and strengthen the individual worker's commitment to the organization's common purpose and joint interests.

* Providing overworked workers with some relief from the stress and strain caused by intensified job demands. Increased leisure time, resulting from a reduced work week, can help individuals and organizations in dealing with the increasingly troublesome job "burnout" problem which reduces employee effectiveness and productivity.

* Allowing employees to have the extra time off needed to become more active in community affairs, develop new interests, and/or acquire new skills to improve their performance on the job and worth in the job market.

In spite of the above-mentioned benefits, however, one must admit that job sharing may not applicable in all types of organizations or occupations, nor should one look upon it as the only or ultimate cure for high unemployment. What one hopes for is that it becomes a part of the culture within working organizations and the society at large because its advantages far outweight its disadvantages.

Implied in this argument is that unemployment is not only a serious human, social, and economic problem but also a major challenge to this and other free enterprise economies. Its social cost exceeds whatever benefits result from its use as a tool against inflation. Its negative consequences also exceed the marginal benefits to be gained by employers in the form of better employee performance owing to heightened fear of job loss.

This writer does not subscribe to the theory that employees work harder or better, over the long term, if their jobs are not secure. Improved job security has proven to be quite effective in increasing the productivity of the Japanese worker; and there is no reason to believe that it could not lead to the same result in the United States. Furthermore, increasing job security, through job sharing and other solutions to the unemployment problem, would rob the enemies of this economic system of one of their most lethal propaganda weapons.