Wisconsin Lawmakers Go After Workers’ Weekends

Wisconsin capitol

Wisconsin’s capitol building CREDIT: SHUTTERSTOCK

By BRYCE COVERT, Think Progress

Two Wisconsin state lawmakers have proposed a bill that would roll back the state’s requirement that companies give workers at least one day off every seven days.

Currently, state law mandates a 24-hour rest period every seven days for employees in factory and mercantile workplaces. The bill would create an exemption allowing workers to voluntarily opt out of the rest period and keep working more than seven consecutive days.

There is already a process by which employers can request waivers from the requirement from the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development, and Rep. Mark Born (R), one of the bill’s creators, points out himself that it has never rejected such a request. His bill “simply allows employers to ask employees if they want to work overtime when it’s available,” he said.

But some are concerned that it would be hard to ensure that workers were actually choosing to forgo the rest period, rather than being pressured by employers. As Moshe Z. Marvit reports, “the reason Wisconsin had passed a ‘day of rest’ law in the first place was because employers had been abusing employees by pressing them to work too many days without break.” Marquette University law professor Paul Secunda argued that in many workplaces, “workers often have a proverbial gun to the head.” And the Economic Policy Institute’s Ross Eisenbrey has noted, “If the employer puts pressure on people and lets them know they will be unhappy if workers exercise their right to have a day off, that might be enough so that no worker ever does anything but volunteer to work seven days a week.”

Employers already frequently get away with breaking labor laws. It’s estimated that they rob employees of more than $50 billion in wages every year by making them work off the clock, denying them overtime pay, or making them pay for things like uniforms out of their meager wages. Even when workers press charges over wage theft, many don’t recover any money after proving what happened.

Wisconsin’s law is somewhat rare in the U.S. Just 13 states mandate a day of rest, and some laws only apply to particular categories of workers. At the same time, no American worker is guaranteed paid vacation time, holiday time, or sick leave. The 40-hour workweek that unions fought to enshrine has ballooned to 47 hours, on average. Other countries have outpaced us in trying to shrink the workweek, and we work well above average hours compared to other developed peers.

Wisconsin has been a battleground over other union victories in recent months. Gov. Scott Walker (R) signed a right-to-work bill into law earlier this month that allows workers to opt out of paying union dues even if they are represented by one in a workplace and benefit from the union’s negotiations. Other anti-labor bills are expected to surface soon, including undoing a prevailing wage law, changes to workers compensation, and a reversal of project labor agreements that bar non-union contractors from publicly funded projects.

Reprinted with permission from Think Progress, a branch of The Center for American Progress