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May 17, 2007

Vacations, Holidays, and Sick Days, Oh My!

I tend to think it's easier to not see the lack of mandatory paid vacation and holiday as much of a problem if you're a highly educated, white collar worker, and even easier if you're a stay-at-home, freelance writer. It will simply never be true for you that the minimum is your reality.

But that doesn't mean it's not true for others. According to the CEPR study (pdf), about a quarter of workers don't get any paid vacation or holidays. If you make less than $15 an hour, that number jumps to 31%. If you do get paid vacation, on average, you get 12 days of it a year. That's less than the statutory minimum in every advanced country save Japan and Canada, and I'd bet the average in both countries well outpaces the average here.

And it's not just vacation days. Nearly half of all private sector workers get no paid sick days. In the bottom quarter of US workers, 80% are deprived -- and this is exactly the group that can't afford to take an unpaid sick day. And so far as family values go, only one in three workers has paid sick days they can use to care for ill children.

But really, unpaid is a bit misleading here: The employer isn't paying for worker illness, to be sure. But we are. As Bob Herbert reports:

I recently spoke with Bertha Brown, a home health aide who lives in Philadelphia and has two young daughters. She makes $7 an hour caring for people who are ill or disabled. “I feed them and dress them,” she said. “And if they have to be changed, I do all that.”

She has worked for the better part of two decades without ever being paid for a sick day. And her wages are so low she can’t afford to lose even a day’s pay. “If I get sick, I work sick,” she said. “I cover my nose and my mouth with a mask to keep my clients from getting sick.”

Food service workers are among those least likely to get paid sick days. Eighty-six percent get no sick days at all. They show up in the restaurants coughing and sneezing and feverish, and they start preparing and serving meals. You won’t see many of them wearing masks.

If you don't want your fries coming with a side of influenza, incidentally, there's some good legislation kicking around Congress that would mandate paid sick days. You can support it here.

May 17, 2007 in Economics, Labor | Permalink

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If you don't want your fries coming with a side of influenza

If it's a KFC, do they come with Avian Flu?

Posted by: Glenn | May 17, 2007 1:44:58 PM

A nasty case of norovirus cleaned out two of the 'better' chain restaurants in mid-Michigan recently - 400+ sick people at one, if memory serves, because one of the kitchen staff wasn't allowed to go home when they felt ill.

So yeah, it might be a good idea to mandate a few days of sick time.

Posted by: twig | May 17, 2007 2:17:02 PM

Even us highly-educated white-collar types can get stuck in positions that lack basic benefits. I've got a Master's degree and I work as a contractor in an IT field for a Fortune 100 corporation. I'm paid by the hour and get no paid time off whatsoever.

Posted by: jackd | May 17, 2007 2:33:15 PM

It just struck me that I can't recall Ezra ever posting anything positive about the US. Maybe he has, but it's been so infrequent that it just didn't make an impression.

If this blog were the only information I got on the US, I would think it's a terrible place to live and yet the whole world is clamoring to get in. They just keep coming...English, Mexicans, Indians, Asians.....jumping fences and swimming rivers in come cases just to get in.

Posted by: Fred Jones | May 17, 2007 3:04:32 PM

I tend to think it's easier to not see the lack of mandatory paid vacation and holiday as much of a problem if you're a highly educated, white collar worker, and even easier if you're a stay-at-home, freelance writer.

Exactly. And it's easier to be self-righteous about how much vacation one doesn't take when it's always there and available should one deign to stop single-handedly saving the world for a week or two.

Posted by: Stephen | May 17, 2007 3:08:13 PM

What some companies are doing these days is creating a single "PTO" (paid time off) pool whereby both vacation time and sick time is drawn from the same pool. It's good in that it does give the worker more flexibility to use their PTO for their own purposes, but if you have the bad luck to have a particularly unhealthy year, you can also burn through all your PTO being sick (or caring for a sick family member) and not get a proper vacation at all.

Posted by: fiat lux | May 17, 2007 3:30:34 PM

Fred: Unlike you, Ezra is something positive about the U.S.

Posted by: dc | May 17, 2007 3:31:58 PM

They just keep coming...English, Mexicans, Indians, Asians.....jumping fences and swimming rivers in come cases just to get in.

Yet somehow, we don't have to set up immigration control booths at the end of the fjords, or teach customs dogs to sniff out wooden shoes, to keep the Swedes or the Dutch from overwhelming us.

Think of the horrors-Svens everywhere!

Seriously; the fact that the US is a more desirable place to live than third-world countries is the best thing you have to say about it? I'm a pretty staunch liberal, and I'm quite sure I could do a lot better than that.

Posted by: David S | May 17, 2007 3:34:00 PM

That's all you've got, Fred? Really? A pretty poor showing.

Posted by: djw | May 17, 2007 3:34:49 PM

Fred, you do realize that some people, when they love something or someone deeply, see that as a responsibility to try to improve it or him?

I believe it was the noted leftist G.K. Chesterton who compared the idea of "My country right or wrong" to "My mother, drunk or sober."

Posted by: Magenta | May 17, 2007 4:11:41 PM

I've exhausted what I have to say in the earlier thread. And yet, I still have more to contribute than Fred.

The idea that mandating 7 days of paid sick leave a year is too much for our poor employer class is just unspeakable. We are, after all, the richest country in the world.

Posted by: Klein's Tiny Left Nut | May 17, 2007 4:33:37 PM

Even with paid vacation and sick leave days, the pressure is on in many businesses to not use it - in subtle ways sometimes, but obvious enough that all got the message. The pressure increases when certain internal deadlines are facing the group.

I've been employed by what nearly everyone thought were enlightened companies, but the demands of the job are made real clear. When salary reviews and promotions are being considered, those who work without end and don't take disloyal vacations and sick leave are preferred.

I've heard these discussions directly as a middle manager, and they ugly indeed. One woman was dissed for having a hysterectomy - and these were non-union professional workers.

The union folks in the company actually had it easier since the union would defend their workers, but the exempt employees were often told of their obligations to the company in ways that were unmistakable.

I think the difference in attitude by US versus (for instance) EU companies is here 'unbridled' capitalism is worshiped, and there it is accepted that the excesses of market economics have to have a counterweight. Checks and balances are good in more than politics, they are also key in business. Acton was correct: Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.

Posted by: JimPortlandOR | May 17, 2007 4:54:03 PM

It just struck me that I can't recall Ezra ever posting anything positive about the US. Maybe he has, but it's been so infrequent that it just didn't make an impression.
Posted by: Fred Jones | May 17, 2007 3:04:32 PM

It's just struck me that you seem to be on "vacation" every single day.

My hometown has a big Volvo office center in it. I grew up knowing alot of Swedish kids and their families. They would be around for about a year or two at a time. Apparently, it was kinda tough for Volvo to get them to hang around longer. As soon as the Volvo employee's tenure was up, every one of them left the USA as fast as possible. From what they usually talked about, it wasn't the weather they missed.

Posted by: Chow | May 17, 2007 5:25:32 PM

Jim,

My mother's job offers sick time, but each time she uses it they record that as an "occurrence." And if someone has too many "occurrences," they end up on probation. So, you know, they can be sick, but not for long.

Posted by: Magenta | May 17, 2007 5:46:05 PM

I think the central problem is that conservatives in the US only think of coercian as existing in one context, but any study of organizational structures says it occurs wherever one has an organization.

Posted by: akaison | May 17, 2007 5:52:47 PM

At my 48+ hour/week always-mandatory-overtime job we start with 5 days vacation at the one year mark and gain an additional day for every year of employment. This is along with 5 days of "allowed absences" for both sick time and plain burnout days, with the ability of middle managment and supervisors to reject doctor's notes as "unexcused" if and when they feel like it.

It doesn't matter if you're working a 36-48 hour weekend shift or a 6 day per week 8-10 hour shift, getting time off just plain doesn't happen.

I happen to work for the largest company in my field, and to use paid vacation or unpaid sick time is seen as the surest way to never advance beyond grunt labor... Sure is the American dream eh?

Posted by: Damien | May 17, 2007 8:21:48 PM

Seriously; the fact that the US is a more desirable place to live than third-world countries is the best thing you have to say about it?

To be fair, he mentioned England alongside those 3rd-world countries.

Of course, there don't seem to be all that many English people swimming rivers and etc. to get here . . .

Posted by: Dan S. | May 18, 2007 1:44:09 AM

The idea that mandating 7 days of paid sick leave a year is too much for our poor employer class is just unspeakable.

I would like to see more vacation time. However, when searching for a solution, one must ask himself if this is really the role of the federal government? Depends upon what your vision of government is, doesn't it?

Posted by: Fred Jones | May 18, 2007 8:47:30 AM

I'm a corporate tool who makes policy in these matters, among others, for around 1500 American employees. We abolished "sick days" a few years ago by rolling them into "vacation days" and giving a total "paid time off" benefit. We did this because the very concept of "sick days" erodes the atmosphere of trust in the employment relationship. How? It turns otherwise honest employees into liars.

Back when we had paid sick days, our HR department would get a torrent of phone calls around mid November from people asking "how much sick time" they had left. After that, people would call in sick on Fridays or Mondays. In many cases, they were obviously lying. This bothered me enormously, because I believe that if people lie in this aspect of their job they will lie in other respects. Since we are both a public company and make products on which people literally stake their lives, I regarded sick pay as highly corrosive to trust in the work place. So we did away with both sick pay and vacation time and now have one thing, "paid time off." You have X number of paid days off (based on seniority, but not rank or title), after which you are not paid. We do not inquire into your reasons for taking time off.

So I am unalterably opposed to any legal requirement for paid "sick" time. It fosters lying that is unacceptable in today's work place.

Posted by: TigerHawk | May 18, 2007 8:50:16 AM

Actually, I used to work for a company whose sick day policy was "if you're sick and can't come in, don't come in." It would only become an issue in the event an employee had a long term illness or hospitalization. Of course, this was a software company made up almost entirely of young people, but I thought this was a rational approach. How many times have I been so ill I had to miss more than 2 days at a time? Maybe once every 3-4 years?

Paid sick leave does come into play when a person has a serious illness that requires long-term convalesence. If I ever get diagnosed with cancer or get into a serious accident requiring a lot of surgery and therapy, those two-weeks-a-year of paid sick leave that roll over every year are going to seem really worthwhile.

people would call in sick on Fridays or Mondays.

Yes, I'm sure that everyone was up in arms that 40% of sick days were called in on Fridays and Mondays.

Seriously, though, I think that those liars can be dealt with administratively, no?

Posted by: Constantine | May 18, 2007 10:00:53 AM

"I regarded sick pay as highly corrosive to trust in the work place. So we did away with both sick pay and vacation time and now have one thing, "paid time off."

Perhaps you could enhance "trust in the workplace" if your company respected its employees as human beings who need more than a scant few days vacation every year. To be sure, I don't know what the average number of "paid days" your company grants its workers, but the US "big company" norm of 2 weeks is simply not enough, and I certainly wouldn't criticize someone as "lying" for taking days they feel they're entitled to.

If you're really worried about the "corrosion" of trust in the workplace, stop chipping away, year after year, at employee benefits such as pensions, health care, maternity/paternity leave, etc., and start treating people with dignity. Just because labor has no bargaining power in this country doesn't mean that "arbeit macht frei."

Posted by: Passing Shot | May 18, 2007 10:05:52 AM

If you're really worried about the "corrosion" of trust in the workplace, stop chipping away, year after year, at employee benefits such as pensions, health care, maternity/paternity leave, etc., and start treating people with dignity.

We haven't done any of that stuff. We have grown from 130 employees and losing $15 million/year ten years ago to more than 2000 employees and profitable today. In the process, we have constantly improved our wages and benefits and created a lot of new jobs that did not previously exist. Our employees make products that are implanted in severely injured or sick people, so we require a very high level of honesty in the work place -- the last thing we need is for workers to cover up problems, so we push people to speak truth to power, as you lefties would say. I therefore oppose any system that gives people an incentive to say they are sick when they are not, because it undermines honesty on the job. It is manifestly better, in my opinion, to give people a specified number of days off with pay and not inquire into their reasons.

Our starting employees have a total of 18 days PTO, after two years it goes to 21 days, and after five years it goes to 24 days. So if you don't get sick you get between 3.5 and 5 weeks "vacation." If you do get sick it is obviously less than that.

Our view of the local (New Jersey) labor market is that this is typical for a non-unionized manufacturing company. I don't think it is a bad deal, either.

As for health care, we do require that our employees kick in, just as most American employers do. However, the proportion of the total expenditure paid by the company has been growing faster than the proportion paid by the individuals. This is not out of the kindness of our hearts, but is required by the labor market, which we regard as extremely competitive, at least for people who show up for work on time and put in an honest day when they are on the job.

Posted by: TigerHawk | May 18, 2007 12:13:41 PM

Actually, I used to work for a company whose sick day policy was "if you're sick and can't come in, don't come in." It would only become an issue in the event an employee had a long term illness or hospitalization.

Yup - my agency switched to "sick leave as required". We had a few people who had excessive use (either chronic illnesses that would have been handled via time-off-without-pay before, or who needed to be managed better), but for the vast majority, there was no difference in actual time taken off. But they appreciated the different approach.

Posted by: Phoenician in a time of Romans | May 18, 2007 12:29:05 PM

When I worked for AT&T, back before the SBC merger in 2005, they had the same 'as required' policy on sick days, which I regarded as treating employees as responsible adults. There were two modifications that seemed to make sense:

One, if you were out for more than five consecutive days, you needed to bring written confirmation from a doctor. Anything that keeps you out of work for five days is probably serious, so this should not be a real problem.

Two, more than seven (?) 'occurrences' would raise a flag. An 'occurrence' was an absence from start to finish regardless of the number of days. If you hit the limit, there was a formal documentation procedure if the person was occupational instead of management, but looking carefully at someone who's out sick more than six times a year seems reasonable, even if only to strongly recommend they get to a doctor and get the underlying condition treated. Counting "occurrences" even has the beneficial effect of encouraging sick employees to stay home until they're really better, rather than coming back too soon.

To answer Fred Stone's last comment, yes, I do regard it as the proper function of the government to require employers to treat their employees decently. You do, too, Fred. We simply draw the line for 'treat decently' in different places.

Posted by: jackd | May 18, 2007 5:35:39 PM

Yes, I'm sure that everyone was up in arms that 40% of sick days were called in on Fridays and Mondays.

Ahhh, a classic Dilbert cartoon. Nice.

Posted by: Col Bat Guano | May 19, 2007 1:19:19 AM

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