Could a 4-day work week boost B.C.'s COVID-plagued economy?

As provinces, countries and the world as a whole struggle to re-start economies, some policymakers are pitching a four-day work week as a way to help generate tourism spending.  

New Zealand's prime minister is recommending a compressed work week as a way to encourage more weekend travel within the country, where about 60 per cent of tourism is domestic.

The theory is that more flexible working arrangements will help promote more staycations that are generally conducive to long-weekend travel. And it's being welcomed by some politicians in B.C., too.

"It's a very interesting idea that should be considered," said Cowichan Valley MLA Sonia Furstenau. "It's one example of the kind of nimbleness that we need to think about when we approach this COVID-19 recovery."

She has long been a supporter of a shorter work week, even highlighting it in her campaign platform to become the next leader of the B.C. Green Party.

In the past, she has praised the benefits of productivity and work-life balance, and says the current pandemic could be the impetus to trigger healthier long-term habits.

"A mandatory four-day work week...would increase costs and add regulatory complexity for employers in every sector." - Jock Finlayson, Business Council of British Columbia

"In a suite of possible approaches, this seems to be one that would be well-suited to British Columbia — particularly given our domestic tourism as an important part of our local recovery," she told CBC News.

Furstenau believes it's not a policy that should be mandatory, and therefore would not require legislative changes, but rather suggests it be led by employers. Still, she believes government can play a role.

"You don't want to impose a top-down approach to this, but rather encourage businesses to consider it," she said. "There could be incentives provided by federal or provincial governments."

So is a four-day work week something the current NDP government would endorse for British Columbians?

"I think I will leave that up to the entrepreneurial spirit of British Columbian businesses and the workers," said Labour Minister Harry Bains when asked about it a news conference Thursday.

"Many already have different work schedules; some work four days on, four days off; others have staggered hours," he said. "At the end of the day, we as a government want to make sure we support those businesses and their initiatives." 

'B.C. is not New Zealand'

Some in the province's business community are not welcoming the idea so warmly — especially if a compressed work week was required, rather than simply encouraged.

"In the current pandemic-driven economic crisis, business does not support government-imposed measures that would further increase operating and labour costs, and thus make it harder for companies to hire back employees," said Jock Finlayson, chief policy officer of the Business Council of British Columbia. 

He said the approach makes no sense for firms that have seen revenues drop significantly or collapse altogether, adding there is no need at this point for the province to consider 'drastic steps.'

"B.C. is not New Zealand... A mandatory four-day work week, especially if not accompanied by proportionate pay reductions, would increases costs and add regulatory complexity for employers in every sector," Finlayson said in a statement.

Ben Nelms/CBC

'A number of ideas — and that's a good one'

B.C.'s tourism industry has all but come to a halt since the pandemic hit in March and is looking at its options. 

"There's a number of ideas — and that's a good one," said Walt Judas, CEO of the Tourism Industry Association of B.C., who calls it a novel concept.

He believes extending weekends would encourage people to hop in their car and go further afield than a two-day weekend, so it could benefit some communities as people travel between regions.

"Any initiatives like this we would certainly want to look at to see if it is, in fact, a motivation for people to travel. We'd like to think it is, but on the other hand people may still choose to stay closer to home," he said in an interview Thursday.

Roshini Nair/CBC

However, even if B.C. does benefit from a bump in domestic travellers, many of the most popular outdoor activities in the province are free.

"Having people travel to other jurisdictions is great, but if they're only on a hiking trail and not spending money at a restaurant or going to an attraction or staying at a hotel — that doesn't help businesses that are desperate for visitors."

Judas also wonders whether tourist facilities will be ready to accept an influx in visitors in time to cash in on the peak summer tourism season from May-September. 

"It's the nearby, short-haul travel market that is your bread and butter," he said, adding the bulk of tourism dollars in the province are generated from residents of British Columbia.