Dean Baker and Helene Jorgensen
Philadelphia Inquirer, Sep. 2, 2002

For most Americans, Labor Day is a day spent with friends and family at the beach, sporting events or a backyard barbecue. It’s a last chance to enjoy the summer before the weather starts getting cold and the kids go back to school. This is exactly what Congress intended back in 1894 when it passed legislation making Labor Day a national holiday. 

But, for millions of workers, Labor Day is another day on the job. For many of these workers, it is literally just another day on the job. The law actually does not require employers to pay any wage premium when they force their employees to work on Labor Day, or any other national holiday. This means that many of the people grilling burgers at fast food restaurants, staffing the checkout counter at convenience stores, or cleaning the bathrooms in hotels, get the same hourly pay when they are forced to work on Labor Day, as they do any other day of the year.

They get no compensation whatsoever for being separated from their friends and family on a national holiday. According to data from the Labor Department, 25.5 million workers do not get any paid holiday time, meaning that they either get the holidays off without pay, or they are forced to work at their regular wage. Similarly, 22.2 Million workers have no paid vacation at their job.

The United States stands alone among the rich nations of the world, in not requiring any paid days off for its workers. A statute of the European Union guarantees workers in member nations at least four weeks of paid leave. Workers in most countries in the European Union actually get considerably more leave than this minimum. For example, national laws in Austria, Denmark, France and Spain all guarantee their workers at least 30 days of paid time off.

The rest of the industrialized world has sought to ensure some amount of leisure for their workers, with shorter workweeks and longer vacations. But, the United States has gone in the opposite direction, as average annual hours of work have increased slightly over the last two decades. Workers in the United States now work more hours on average than do workers in any other industrialized nation, including Japan, long known for its strict work ethic.

The United States does enjoy the highest standard of living of the major industrialized nations, but the vast majority of the gap between the United States and other rich nations is due to more hours of work, not more output per hour. In fact, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, several European nations enjoy a higher standard of living than the United States, when calculated on a per hour of work basis.

While we may not want to adopt European standards for work time and vacation, we could take some small steps to ensure that all workers enjoy some paid time off. A simple place to start is to amend the Fair Labor Standards Act to require that work on holidays is paid at one and a half times the normal wage, the same premium required  when an employee works more than forty hours a week.

Similarly, we could require some amount of paid leave. Eighteen days a year would still leave us behind the minimum set by European Union, but it might be a good start. This would be a small increase over the 14.2 days workers receive on average, and a big increase for those who currently get no time off.

While some employers would undoubtedly complain about requiring paid time off, it is important to remember that the vast majority of employers do give their workers paid holidays and time off. Putting these minimums into law would simply level the playing field, so that the employers who give their workers paid holidays and vacations are not operating at a competitive disadvantage.

Congress had intended national holidays to be special days, ideally celebrated with friends and family. As it says on the Department of Labor’s website: "The vital force of labor added materially to the highest standard of living and the greatest production the world has ever known and has brought us closer to the realization of our traditional ideals of economic and political democracy. It is appropriate, therefore, that the nation pay tribute on Labor Day to the creator of so much of the nation's strength, freedom, and leadership — the American worker." These words would have more meaning, if workers could count on getting the day off.