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Sharing Work Saves Jobs

New program cuts hours instead of people, helps older workers

"The company does all the paperwork," said Dianne Proulx, president of the union that represents employees at the Republican, a 400-employee Springfield, Mass., media company. "The employees didn't have to file the claims. And the unemployment office can be hard to reach."

At the Republican, employees have been taking off 10 days spread over the 20-week duration of the plan.

If employees can get past the loss of income, many treasure the freedom that comes with a string of three-day weekends. Proulx's days off allow her and her husband to take camping trips. "People visit their families, go to amusement parks and get things done around the house," said Rhonda Stubblefield, HR benefits coordinator at Scroll Compressors, a Lebanon, Mo., manufacturer of compressors for air conditioners, with a workforce of 1,000.

Unions' reactions

Under federal law, employers must get labor's blessing before initiating a program. At the Republican, the Springfield Newspapers Employees Association gave no resistance — it was the union's idea, enshrined in its contract. "We'd had layoffs a couple of time in the past, so we wanted work sharing in lieu of more layoffs, or unpaid furlough days," says Proulx, president of the union.

Still, unions sometimes resist. The president of a small textile company recounted union opposition. "We have a group of 18 employees on a work-sharing plan right now," said the president, who asked not to be named, citing concern over offending the union. "In 1996, when we did it the first time, the union business agent told us he didn't support it. … We're going low-key this time."

Because work sharing is generally administered uniformly across work units, it can clash with a value long-championed by the labor movement — seniority. But seniority does get its due at the Republican, says Proulx: "In any department, if two employees wanted to take off the same day, we used seniority to break the tie."

Overall, "work sharing is a way to reduce the human costs of a recession," said Neil Ridley of the Center for Law and Social Policy, a research and advocacy group for low-income people. "Just as unemployment insurance keeps people from falling into poverty, work sharing also helps keep people out of poverty due to job loss."

At NECS, meanwhile, the program is winding down. Most employees, including Jeanne Manhard, are back to 40-hour workweeks. Times are looking up, and most everyone who was with the company when the crisis began is onboard to help build the business back up.

Diane Cadrain is a Connecticut-based attorney and freelance journalist who writes frequently on employment issues.

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