BY JUMAANE D. WILLIAMS
This Labor Day, we remember and elevate the countless ways in which unions have fought to improve the lives of people who work to support their families and build our nation. These organizations have worked across generations to secure the five-day work week, paid family and medical leave, safer working conditions, child labor laws, and other advancements, many of which are often taken for granted today. To truly honor that legacy and obtain justice for undervalued working New Yorkers, we must take another crucial step by leading our nation – a nation that lags behind dozens of countries in this area– to secure paid personal time for all.
The fight for paid time off is not new. It spans generations, beginning as early as the New Deal era, when President William Howard Taft argued in 1910 that Americans need up to three months of time off to ensure they could keep working “with the energy and effectiveness.” Our labor unions picked up the torch and in the 1930s, began negotiating to acquire paid time off coverage as the Labor Department investigated whether the nation should have a federal vacation policy. By 1943, eight million unionized employees had paid time off, up from two million in 1940.
Now, in 2019, a culture of overwork dominates our nation, and paid time off is treated as a privilege afforded only to some well-off workers. Currently, the US is the only advanced economy that does not guarantee paid personal time for workers. By comparison, Australia requires employers to offer at least 20 paid personal days per year, while many European countries offer up to 30 paid personal days per year. A recent survey found that 52 percent of low-wage workers nationally have paid personal time as compared to 91 percent of high-wage workers. These statistics reveal a question of equity, fairness, and worker justice. Mandating paid personal time is the answer.
The epidemic of overwork is even more exacerbated in New York City. Currently, nearly a million New Yorkers do not have any paid personal time. Notably, lower-income workers are less likely to have this benefit, as only 38 percent of New Yorkers with low incomes report having any paid time off compared to two-thirds of those with moderate to high incomes. Workers who are viewed as subjects unworthy of rest can be forced to make a decision as to whether they miss much-needed pay or risk termination because of needed time away from work. They are forced to make an unjust choice just to get by, paralyzed by policy and by a culture that reprimands, rather than rewards, taking such personal time.
Ours is a culture of overwork and undervalue. But it is also a culture of working people fighting for their rights and the rights of others, standing together, and building a movement for justice.
To advance justice and equity for 3.4 million working New Yorkers, five years ago I introduced a first-of-its-kind bill to guarantee paid personal time for most employees. It would require employers to give workers 80 hours of paid personal time annually, attained on an accrual basis. While there are those who have tried to present this proposal as new and overly radical, it has been building in city government for five years, and in our country for more than five decades. It is progressive, but as part of progress that has been building for much of our history. This proposal is widely supported by a majority of New Yorkers, with 80 percent saying they support expanding paid personal time in a recent poll.
Some have raised concerns about increased costs, including in the small business community – as a former small business owner myself, I am sensitive and receptive to their concerns. We want small businesses to thrive, and their concerns are real and must be addressed. At the same time, it is undeniable that we as a city, and business owners in particular, have an imperative to protect and advance the well-being of the employees who help build and maintain those businesses. In working toward passing landmark legislation such as paid personal time, it is crucial to bring all stakeholders to the table for a dialogue about how it can best be implemented, and small business owners must be at that table. We can work together, as we did with paid sick leave, as we did in the Fight for 15, to enact legislation that works for all in the workplace.
Moreover, employers will benefit from the proven gains that paid leave provides employees – improved mental and physical health, lower stress, greater morale, and increased productivity, among others. Time off will also allow employees to patronize local businesses and bolster the tourism industry that is a major contributor to New York’s economy. I am committed to working with all New Yorkers – including the business community – to ensure we pass the best law possible. After five years with this legislation, and the many decades of work that led us to this point, we can seize the momentum of the moment and create transformational change.
New York City finally has a chance at victory in the long-fought battle for paid time off, a chance to lead the nation in caring for our city’s workers. Working people have been in this fight for nearly a century, and after all those years of tireless advocacy, it’s time for all New Yorkers to finally take a very well-earned break.
Williams is the public advocate of the city of New York.