Mayor de Blasio has proposed an ordinance that would guarantee workers in the city at least two weeks a year of paid vacation. In taking this step, de Blasio is bringing the city in line with every other wealthy country in the world, which have long had paid vacation as a basic right of employment.
It is striking how out of line the United States is with the rest of the world in not providing paid vacation. When I first met my wife, who is from Denmark, she told me about how the unions in the country were having a general strike. They were demanding six weeks of paid vacation a year. They already had five. (The strike was quickly settled with a compromise of five weeks and three days, although they have since raised the number to six weeks.) Denmark is not an outlier, all workers in the European Union can count on at least four weeks a year of vacation and many are near Denmark with five or six weeks.
There are two basic points about paid leave. The first is the obvious one; the goal of the economy is to give people decent lives. This means not only having nice things but also having the time to enjoy life.
The reduction of work time has long been a basic demand of workers. Many of the biggest labor actions in the late 19th and early 20th century were for the eight-hour day. There was a sharp reduction in average work hours from the turn of the century until 1940. While other countries have continued to reduce average work hours (in Europe, the average work year is now about 20 percent shorter than in the United States), there has been little change in the United States over the last 80 years.
At least part of the story is that we have benefits like pensions and health care insurance that are overhead costs, with employers paying a fixed amount per worker rather than per hour. This gave employers a large incentive to have workers put in more hours rather than hiring additional workers. As these structures change (defined benefit pensions are unfortunately disappearing and employers often pro-rate health care benefits), there is less reason for employers to prefer having fewer workers putting in more hours.
The other point is that vacation time can make workers more productive. Workers need time away from their job to revitalize themselves and think about their job in new ways. This is part of the reason that many employers already offer paid vacations.
Unfortunately, not all workers can count on paid leave and it is disproportionately the workers in lower paying jobs who are left out. This is why de Blasio’s measure is so important. It is a huge step toward leveling the playing field, giving many workers at the middle and lower end of the labor market a benefit that most highly paid workers have long taken for granted.
Undoubtedly we will hear screams that this measure will cost jobs. This is a claim without evidence to support it. Denmark and other countries that provide paid leave have strong economies with low unemployment. In fact, if we focus on employment rates of prime-age workers (people between the ages of 25 to 55) Denmark and most other Western European Countries are well ahead of the United States. And, the employers that already provide paid leave, which include all the countries’ leading companies, are not suffering as a result.
In short, this is a measure that is long overdue. De Blasio has taken a huge step forward in proposing this ordinance for New York. Hopefully, other states and cities will follow quickly, and perhaps we can hope for national legislation in the not too distant future.