Paid Leave and Silicon Valley’s Culture of Disregard for Workers’ Rights

05/18/2015 12:00am

The Washington Post recently reported on a new book about Elon Musk, a Silicon Valley billionaire, highlighting some of his noteworthy quotations. Although most of these are used to deify Musk, others paint a picture of someone who is demanding of his workers: so much so that he berated an employee who took time off from work to be present at his child’s birth. (Musk later denied that this took place.) However, other quotations reinforce this attitude. Whether tongue-in-cheek or not, Musk’s comments about preferring employees to work on weekends or to not take vacation create an environment where workers might be hesitant to take advantage of the workplace rights guaranteed to them under law or provided by their employer.

Although tech workers in Silicon Valley (like those at Musk’s Tesla) are usually well-compensated and have lavish workplace benefits (like in-house restaurants, gyms, dry cleaners, etc.), they still are workers, and they are often exploited by their employers, whether it’s through discouraging paid leave or through other even more malign practices. A striking recent example is the collusion of several tech company CEOs to not recruit workers between their firms, a form of wage theft which drove down wages of millions of tech workers. (Tech companies have also looked to hire less expensive foreign workers by pushing to expand the H1B visa program even though there is no shortage of qualified American workers.) And the workplace perks that are often used a selling point in job negotiations can be viewed in a different perspective: a sometimes exclusionary strategy to keep workers working for longer than is traditionally expected.

With a workplace culture, often reinforced by employers, that prioritizes work before time for yourself or for your family, there can be strong disincentives that discourage workers from taking leave. California has some of the strongest paid leave laws in the country, including provisions for paid sick leave and paid family leave (for events such as a child’s birth), but those aware of those laws don’t necessary take advantage of them. In their book Unfinished Business, Eileen Appelbaum and Ruth Milkman found that among workers in their survey who knew about California’s paid family leave program but did not use it when they needed it, 31.5 percent reported that they were afraid their employer would be unhappy, 28.9 percent were worried it would hurt their opportunities for advancement, and 23.9 percent were afraid of being fired (respondents could select more than one reason for not taking paid leave). While the number of respondents is too small to draw a general conclusion, this suggests that being wary of repercussions from their employers may be an important reason that workers do not take leave they need.

It’s not like this everywhere. Paid leave is standard in rich countries and it’s more commonly taken. While California has taken an important step in passing laws that guarantee paid leave under certain situations, the workplace culture in the U.S.—including when the workforce is skewed toward young, single, men as it is in Silicon Valley—needs to change so that employers encourage employees to take leave when appropriate. This is the only way to be fair to those who are sick, have children, or need to care for a relative, for example. Not only is this the right thing to do, there are many other benefits for employers, both tangible and intangible, including making employees more productive.

Although creating a culture that allows for a work/life balance is often a decentralized and informal process, employers can take steps to help it along. They can make it clear to managers that their organizations support paid leave and they could, for example, institute rules that discourage employees from emailing past normal business hours. In Telsa’s case, if Musk needs employees to work on Saturdays and forgo leave or vacation in order to succeed, Telsa should hire more workers, or perhaps find new management.

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