Everyone Needs Time Off From Work, But Millions Can’t Take It

I’m preoccupied with time off from work — why I need it, why we all do, why so many can’t take it and what policymakers can do about that.

One of the privileges of retirement is that you can take time off from whatever you’ve chosen to fill your days with and still have as much income as if you’d taken no break.

This assumes you don’t need to earn more because you got paid enough, steadily enough to live on Social Security benefits, plus your savings when you choose not to work anymore — or, as in my case, when the rewards of the work you choose don’t pay bills.

I’ve needed more time off, if you can call it that, since my husband died, partly to deal with basic life maintenance tasks he used to handle and partly to manage more consequential matters.

But the need for time off is hardly restricted to people who’ve experienced a life-changing event. My late sister Marjorie used to take what she called well days — paid time off to tackle personal business so that the mounting pressures didn’t trigger anxieties, sleeplessness and the like that would sap her resistance to illness.

Very few workers have such accommodating bosses, of course. Many can’t even take time off and still get their regular paychecks if they’re actually sick.

About 36% of private-sector workers have no paid sick leave benefit, the Bureau of Labor Statistics just reported. And nearly 60% with service-related jobs don’t. (Remember this next time a wait server hovers over your shoulder.)

Workers, as a whole, fare worse when they need time off to care for a sick family member, a newborn or themselves when they’re expecting. Only 11% of those in the private sector can rely on formal employer policies, though another 28% say they could take it. Not that they tried, mind you.

Needless to say, I hope, fewer low-wage workers have access to any paid leave than others. And they, of course, can least afford to forfeit pay.

Perhaps not needless to say, even now, is that only about 60% of all workers can take unpaid leave for medical or compelling family reasons with any assurance they’ll have jobs to come back to.

They’re workers covered by the federal Family and Medical Leave Act. Similar laws in some states may push the percent up a bit. No data to tell us, so far as I know. But we can, I think, assume that at least a quarter of private-sector workers have no legal right to time off when they’re sick, pregnant or must care for a family member.

The rest don’t qualify because their employer doesn’t have enough other workers on the payroll or because they haven’t worked for the employer long enough. Others because they haven’t recently put in as many hours as the laws require.

FMLA itself is singularly restrictive on workforce size, letting even large employers do as they wish if they have fewer than 50 workers at a given site or within 75 miles of it.

Even workers at sites that meet this standard have no legal right to the unpaid leave unless they’ve worked for the employer for at least a year and for at least 1,250 hours, i.e., more than half time.

We see similar, though not identical restrictions in states’ laws. A lot of variation, but no state requires all employers to let all their workers take time off for an urgent personal health or family-related reason.

Workers entitled to the leave time often can’t take it because they can’t afford to lose pay. But sometimes they’ve no choice. They’ve broken a leg and can’t even hobble to the bus stop, for example.

Reverting to my own experience, illness or other physical incapacity is only one reason people can’t put in the hours they’re scheduled for. They may need to be home, as I recently did, to deal with technicians so as to get the air conditioner chilling again — and (coincidentally) the refrigerator chilling the food.

Paid vacation leave would, in theory, prevent wage loss in such cases. But workers whose employers provide it must often schedule it in advance. And most of the lowest-paid in the private sector have none. This has nothing to do with restrictions in existing laws.

No law requires private-sector employers in America to provide any worker with vacation leave — liberally understood as leave for any reason not covered by FMLA or its state equivalents.

The realities of the labor market generally constrain employers to include a paid vacation leave benefit in the package they offer workers with high-level, in-demand skills. Not, however, those they can hire — and feel they can readily replace — by offering only a low wage.

Bernie Sanders introduced a paid vacation bill when he was campaigning for the Presidential nomination. An idea whose time hasn’t come yet. Paid medical and family leave is a whole other story.

Worker and family advocates have long pressed for it at both federal and state levels. Clinton has embraced it, though not apparently the way pending House and Senate bills would pay for it. It’s a plank in the Democratic party platform, of course.

Columnists left and right understood Ivanka Trump to say her dad would support paid leave when she introduced him at the Republican convention. Not explicitly. Just as well, since he’s suggested it would make our country less competitive.

Regardless of who moves into the White House, a paid sick and family leave bill will have a tough time getting through the next Congress.

House Speaker Paul Ryan could have supported an earlier version of the pending paid leave bill. He instead signed on to one that would let (or force) workers to substitute time off for overtime pay — an old, bad tradeoff.

It’s also Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s “family friendly” alternative to a paid leave guarantee. Democrats would need to gain 14 Senate seats to pass a paid leave bill there. They surely won’t have enough in the House anyway.

So we may see more states decide they shouldn’t wait for a federal law, just as we’ve seen them do with other worker and family friendly measures, e.g., minimum wage increases, controls on constantly shifting schedules.

Best hope for now, I think, though I’d like to be wrong.


One Response to Everyone Needs Time Off From Work, But Millions Can’t Take It

  1. Patty Johnson says:

    Thank you for this! It’s so important to know the realities that many face – helps us to know our blessings and to fight for those who don’t have decent rights/benefits!

    Be well,


    Patty Johnson patrileyj@aol.com

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