Summer Fridays Are Screwing Over American Workers

A predominantly New York City practice, "Summer Fridays" refers to the tradition of employees leaving work as early as 1 p.m. on Friday. This concept allegedly emerged in the 1960s when advertising agency employees left the office early to beat the rush to their weekend getaways.

As blissful and luxurious as this sounds, Summer Fridays are increasingly becoming a thing of the past. With the ongoing recession, the buzz about Summer Fridays has shifted from how you’re enjoying your afternoon off to whether you have the afternoon off. As the Atlantic Wire recently reported, Summer Fridays are becoming a fading art, with even the top executives at publishing companies (an industry infamous for its Friday indulgences) rarely partake. At many firms, Summer Fridays exist in a changed form, where employees must make up the time by arriving earlier in the morning or shortening their lunch time during the week.

Many media outlets treat the decline of Summer Fridays with tongue-in-cheek nonchalance: So what if there is less time to take early trips to the beach or spend boozy afternoons at the Standard? Summer Fridays have always been a privilege of the elite. However, there are ways to address the decline of Summer Fridays beyond missed opportunities for margaritas at 3 p.m. Perhaps upon further examination of this defunct trend, you'll realize, along with me, that the loss of Summer Fridays is not such a big loss at all.

1. They highlight America's obsession with productivity.

Summer Fridays may have originally meant extra leisure time, but few companies today would explicitly cite a trip to the Hampton's as reason for time off. Many companies justify summer Fridays by claiming they increase productivity. According to a 2012 poll conducted by the Corporate Executive Board, a business research and advisory firm, the companies that planned some form of summer hours cited employee engagement as the top reason for implementing summer hours, followed by increased productivity.

Also in 2012, Ultimat Vodka commissioned a survey by Harris Interactive about the number of employees that received Summer Friday benefits. The survey found that 87% of employees who received the benefits believed that it contributed to a healthier work/life balance. “Happy employees are productive employees,” said Greg Cohen, director of corporate communications at Patrón Spirits, owner of Ultimat Vodka. “Letting them off Friday afternoon in the summer can help them achieve that work-life balance.”

Again and again, proponents of Summer Fridays pin productivity as one of the main reasons the tradition should endure. But isn’t this preoccupation with productivity unnerving? “Relax, you’ll be more productive!” declares one New York Times op-ed contributor. Why can’t we relax just to relax?  

2. They show us that we are probably too concerned about our work to actually enjoy time off.

Even if Summer Fridays continue to exist in select firms, they probably will never offer the same leisurely relaxation of the past. There is simply too much work to do. In the Ultimat Vodka survey, of the 12% of participants who received Summer Friday benefits, 41% said they forfeited them due to a heavy workload. Since workloads are heavier than ever, Summer Fridays have become a trade-off: leave early Friday afternoon, but be prepared to come in early for the next few days. In that case, Summer Fridays might actually increase time working rather than reducing it.  

3. They help us realize just how few benefits employees in the U.S. have compared to other countries. 

Amongst all this debate aboutwhether or not companies should implement Summer Fridays, I agree most with these GalleyCat commenters who argue against them. As one commenter points out, “…of all the benefits to give employees, [Summer Fridays] is the weakest.” Giving employees a few extra hours off is hardly as important as getting paid vacation or sick days. In fact, Summer Fridays can give employers an excuse to provide even fewer days of paid vacation, which is a discouraging notion considering that the U.S. already has the lowest number of paid vacations compared to other advanced economies. Perhaps the most we can gain from Summer Fridays is the realization of their unimportance. We should focus instead on establishing working conditions from which we could all benefit. 

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Kanyakrit Vongkiatkajorn

Kanyakrit is a recent graduate of Wesleyan University, where she majored in the College of Letters, a three-year interdisciplinary major focused on European history, literature, and philosophy. She hails from Chiang Mai, Thailand, where she grew up with a love of books, writing, and soup noodles.

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