Several lessons can be learned from Carmageddon 1, among them that when Angelenos are faced with the need to adjust to emergency situations, we do. We did it after the collapse of two major freeways following the 1994 Northridge Earthquake, and during the Rodney King riots and O.J. Simpson’s infamous drive through Westside neighborhoods in 1994.

The other lesson is that when commuters take the day off from work, our congestion is noticeably reduced.

I happened to be on the Ventura (101) Freeway west of the San Diego (405) Freeway on the two afternoons preceding the Sepulveda Pass shutdown. On Thursday afternoon, the freeway was more congested than usual with what I suspect were hordes of people running errands and traveling away from Los Angeles before the closure. However, on Friday afternoon, the 101 resembled what we regularly see on Sunday mornings – far fewer cars making for a pleasant ride.

Obviously, many commuters took Friday off from work to avoid the potential headaches, while many employers closed early to give their employees time to get home in case of a mad rush on local freeways.

All of this got me thinking again about California’s unique daily overtime laws and how the Legislature resists efforts to join rest of the country and make them friendly for commuters and families.

As most California business people know, the state is one of just two that require employees to be paid overtime after working eight-hour days instead of 40-hour workweeks. These overtime laws were enacted generations ago, long before California became a diverse economy, more recently evolving into a service sector economy. In those days, many of California’s jobs were physically draining, such as in agriculture or in manufacturing, and Sundays were often the only day off.

Today, California is different. Of course, there are many jobs that can suck the life out of you after just a few hours, but an increasing number of us now work in sectors where we can take a few minutes to zone out and confidentially update Facebook or play solitaire on the company’s computer system.

More and more of us are commuting from even farther distances to work as the price of housing and the allure of larger backyards has attracted us to communities such as Simi Valley and Valencia.

Every year, legislation is introduced to make it easier for employees to request alternative workweek schedules without triggering overtime and adding costs to their employers. And every year, these bills never pass out of the first legislative committee hearings. The unions hate these bills.

From labor’s standpoint, California’s eight-hour day is sacred. Even though many unions, such as public safety personnel, nurses and entertainment guilds, have negotiated contracts that allow them to work more than eight hours in a day without overtime (in return for other concessions from employers), the labor movement as a whole opposes giving exemptions to nonunion employees. Instead, they would prefer that these workers organize and negotiate with their employers under labor’s umbrella.

Schedules denied

Despite labor’s success at blocking flexible workweek schedules in California, more employees are requesting alternative workweek schedules from their bosses – and being denied.

Under California’s daily overtime laws, flexible workweek schedules are only allowed if two-thirds of the affected employees vote via secret ballot to do so, and workers are scheduled to work for not more than 10 hours in a 24-hour period nor more than 40 hours in a week.

As you can imagine, not too many companies have been able to implement an alternative workweek schedule because of the two-thirds vote rule (which, interestingly enough, was not modified after labor backed Proposition 25 last year, which now allows the budget to be passed with a simple majority). Furthermore, individual workers cannot request their own alternative workweek schedules even if their employers want to accommodate them.

Now, back to Carmageddon. Just think what a four-day, 10-hours-a-day workweek would do to relieve traffic. If commuters could work one day less per week, that could result in thousands of cars not idling along the Sepulveda Pass.

Working parents could spend one day per week with their kids or volunteering in classrooms, school libraries, local parks or other places in need of support.

Air quality would improve with fewer cars on our freeways and better traffic flow.

Productivity would increase in the workplace as employees got to work a little sooner and with less stress.

Economic activity would increase as workers with the day off would probably run a few errands and spend some money, perhaps buying lunch somewhere, getting a pedicure, purchasing something to make for dinner.

So why not allow employees to request a four-day, 10-hours-a-day workweek without necessitating a two-thirds vote of the entire work force?

Around the country, such workweeks have been good for working parents, traffic flow, emission reduction and employee morale. We don’t need to wait for the next Carmageddon to enjoy less congested roads on weekdays, do we?

Brendan Huffman is the owner of Huffman Public Affairs, a Studio City-based firm specializing in association management and strategic communications. He also hosts “Off the Presses” on LATalkRadio.com, which features in-depth conversations with office holders, journalists and other opinion leaders.

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