Two recent city firings show how the eight-hour workday is obsolete

David Modeer made the wrong decision.

There's good reason an internal panel recommended suspension and demotion for two city employees charged with "buddy punching" timecards for Tucson's Environmental Services Department workers: It was the right thing to do. Over the panel's advice, Modeer opted for the draconian measure of firing Robert H. Boumis and Richard Garza despite their decades of service to the city.

This disregard of the panel's suggestion raises several questions, not the least of which is why Modeer, director of Tucson Water, should be the person charged with making a decision concerning Environmental Services Department employees. Being the head of a water utility does not qualify an individual to make personnel decisions for a department outside one's field of expertise.

With the exception of what Modeer told the Arizona Daily Star for public consumption, we may never know why he decided firing was an appropriate punishment. Perhaps he wanted to make an example of the men. Or perhaps he feared public humiliation, demotion and cuts in pay were not harsh enough measures. After all, this is America, and no one wants to be accused of forgiving practices that may slide in more unruly countries such as, say, Italy or Mexico.

But the truth is there are places where social relations rather than the bottom line count for more than following the letter of the law, especially when everyone and her sister bends the rules to meet human needs that aren't factored into accountants' ledgers. Such is the case when Clerk of the Superior Court Patricia Noland gives her employees half a day off during Christmas week.

Most anyone who has faced the daily ritual of being "on the clock" has experienced the small indignities and dehumanization that come with punching a time clock several times a day. The notion of paying people by the hour is a bad idea. But creating a class of wage slaves serves those who measure value in dollars and cents rather than worth.

Fairer would be a system that evaluates work in light of its needed contribution to the well-being of the community. And garbage collectors--besides enabling us to keep things tidy--are the first line of defense against a host of ills existing before public collection became the norm. Bubonic plague comes to mind. Laugh if you will, but imagine what could happen if the people who pick up your refuse decided to protest Modeer's actions by going on strike.

Consequently, the people we called garbagemen before the term became politically incorrect are of far more value to the community than, say, columnists.

With its roots in the Industrial Revolution, the system of hourly wages has never been favorable to workers. But suppose most jobs were salaried. Say you're a trash collector, and you know your team has a certain route it must complete on a particular day. And if the route is finished in six hours rather than eight, why should workers be tacitly encouraged to stretch the work out for eight hours rather than completing it in fewer?

It makes more sense to determine the value of a service rather than pay those delivering the service by the hour. Anyone who has ever worked in an office knows how much time is wasted on non-work-related actions. If all the dawdling office workers knew they were earning x amount of dollars for x amount of tasks completed, rather than x amount of dollars for x amount of time served, you can be sure they would have an incentive to work as efficiently as possible.

There is no intrinsic value to an eight-hour workday. What matters is that work gets done to the best of one's ability. Doing good work is not contingent on how much time is spent at the task. Some folks are just faster than others; it does not necessarily make them better. Nor should they be forced to look busy while enduring hours of nonproductive time "on the job."

How many hours are actually spent doing job-related work? There are legions of city and county employees sitting at desks every day not doing what they were hired to do. They may be on the phone making a doctor's appointment for a sick child; trying to get a flight from Tucson for a family emergency; e-mailing some silly Internet joke to a friend; or talking on the phone to a relative. Shall we fire them all? Or how about bringing criminal action against them? Perhaps we could launch an investigation and get rid of all "slackers."

Or maybe the wiser course of action would be to create a culture of work and a system of payment that rewards engaged employees rather than punishing wage earners who labor at the mercy of the clock.

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