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San Rafael’s Canal Alliance switches to four-day work week

June 6, 2024

By RICHARD HALSTEAD | rhalstead@marinij.com | Marin Independent Journal
Read story from the Marin Independent Journal here

Canal Alliance, a San Rafael-based nonprofit focused on lifting Latino immigrants out of poverty, has decided to institute a four-day work week.

“We went through a pilot phase, and it worked great,” said Omar Carrera, who became the nonprofit’s CEO in 2016. “Now we make it official.”

Canal Alliance is not an outlier. ExtraFood.org, a nonprofit based in Kentfield, switched to a four-day work week in 2022, and Jewish Vocational Service, a nonprofit based in San Francisco, is in the middle of pilot study to decide if it should make the change.

Carrera, however, said going to a 32-hour work week is something that has been considering for some time now. He said the organization identified the goal of becoming an employer of choice in Marin as part of a 10-year vision plan developed in 2018.

Canal Alliance made its first move in the direction of a four-day work week about two years ago while concern regarding COVID-19 was still high. The nonprofit gave employees four additional quarterly holidays.

“COVID was hard on everyone,” said Johanna Schleret, Canal Alliance’s chief human resources officer. “But we were in the middle of it, needing to provide services to the Latino community. It was one of the things we did to improve employee well-being and try to tackle some of the burnout that I think we as a society felt at that point.”

Carrera said his staff expressed their appreciation for the additional paid day off but said they needed more time off to recover.

So in February, Canal Alliance launched a pilot for the four-day work week, transitioning its staff to a 32-hours-a-week schedule while paying them the same salaries they had earned when working five days a week. As might be expected, the switch has been a big hit with Canal Alliance’s employees.

The nonprofit has 112 employees, 85 of whom work full-time, which is now 32 hours a week. Canal Alliance’s top seven managers are all paid well over $100,000 a year; the lowest paid employees earn $55,000 a year.

Following the institution of the four-day work week, 92% of employees reported that their work-life balance had improved, 87% said that their mental health had benefited, and 79% credited the new schedule with improved physical health.

The shorter work week comes in addition to 16 annual holidays and vacations, which start at three weeks a year and top out at five weeks after 10 years of employment.

One of the main incentives for employers to shift to a four-day work week is to attract and retain employees.

Carrera said hiring immigration lawyers in the Bay Area where the cost of living is sky high is difficult, but hiring bilingual immigration lawyers, or bilingual care managers or bilingual educators and therapists is even more challenging.

“So you, as a business,” Carrera said, “you need to make decisions like this to remain competitive and to continue achieving your business goals.”

Canal Alliance has grown by leaps and bounds during recent years. According to its 2022 federal tax filing, its revenues increased to $17.7 million in 2022, up from $13 million the year before. In 2022, the nonprofit reported receiving $14.5 million in gifts, grants and contributions, up from $5.46 million in 2018.

Schleret said that since instituting the four-day work week, Canal Alliance has seen the number of applicants for its jobs triple and its turnover rate drop by half. Carrera said that is important since attrition is expensive.

Schleret said Canal Alliance hasn’t surveyed the people it serves to find out how they feel about the change, but she added, “We do have a lot of positive feedback from clients.”

Schleret said that while employees work fewer hours, schedules have been adjusted to better accommodate the public.

Prior to the switch, most employees worked from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. five days a week with an hour off for lunch. Today, most employees work Monday through Thursday, but Canal Alliance opens its doors at 8 a.m. and remains open until 6 p.m. and doesn’t close for lunch.

“It makes it a lot easier to come before work or after work,” Schleret said. “Overall, we’re serving more clients in our core programming like, for example, social services.”

Canal Alliance’s staff has been creative in the effort to serve more clients while working fewer hours.

“We now take less time to resolve the problem of the client coming to us,” Schleret said. “We became more efficient. We are able to help the client to resolve quicker so we can see more clients.”

One way the nonprofit’s staff has become more efficient is by spending less time in meetings. Schleret said 30-minute meetings have been cut to 25 minutes, and hour-long meetings have been reduced to 50-minute meetings.

In addition, only people essential for the purpose of a meeting are required to attend, and Schleret said action items must be shared following the meeting to demonstrate it was really needed.

“We don’t just have meetings to have a meeting,” she said.

Canal Alliance is also using artificial intelligence (AI) software to increase its efficiency.

“In my human resources department, our recruiting manager does a lot of pre-screening interviews,” Schleret said. “We now use AI to transcribe them, and AI also summarizes them.”

Skeptics could ask why the nonprofit needs the same number of employees if it can do the same amount of work with fewer hours.

“I don’t think it works that way,” Schleret said, “because burnout is real. A lot of the improvements are possible for us because we come to work on Monday rested and in a good space to be excited about the work and have the energy to make change happen.”

Will Dittmar, executive director of ExtraFood, said switching to a four-day work week has allowed his nonprofit to reduce its use of part-time employees and increase the amount of food it is recovering and providing to low-income people by 300%.

Dittmar said while working a 32-hour week, ExtraFood employees are required to work two holidays and a certain number of weekends each year.

Lisa Countryman-Quiroz, CEO of Jewish Vocational Service, said her organization will decide in August whether to make the switch to a four-day work week permanent. She said the group decided to explore the idea because many nonprofit employees are overworked and underpaid.

“We wanted to ensure that we are really respecting and honoring the incredible work that they do,” she said, “not just in terms of pure skill but also the emotional labor that goes into this work.”

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