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The break we all deserve: The case for paid vacation for low-income workers

2019-08-26

Low-income workers in New York City are much less likely to have paid time off than higher earners. (Getty Images)

We all need an occasional break from work. Time to spend with our families, attend to other demands, and relax, refuel and replenish our souls.

But low-income workers in New York City are much less likely to have paid time off than higher earners. And with little control over their work hours or savings to fall back on, these workers are hard-pressed to take unpaid time away from the job, even if it is allowed.

Our most recent “Unheard Third” survey of New Yorkers found that only 38% of low-income workers (with incomes below twice the federal poverty level) had even a single day of paid vacation. That compares to two-thirds of moderate and higher-income workers who are able to take time off with pay.

Full-time workers are more than twice as likely to have access to paid vacation as part-time workers, regardless of income. But even when low-income workers are employed full-time, roughly half get zero paid vacation.

Small employers are the least likely to offer any paid vacation time. Just over a quarter of workers in firms with fewer than five employees have paid vacation. In slightly larger businesses with five to 10 workers, a third receive vacation pay. In contrast, three-quarters of those in firms of 50 or more get it.

If we are considering how to make paid vacation available to more workers, we should keep in mind that it’s low-income employees, part-time workers and those in smaller businesses who are most likely to lack it now.

These patterns are similar to what we see nationally. According to BLS data, 53% of U.S. workers in the bottom 25% of wages had access to paid vacation, compared to 80% of those in the top wage quartile.

This reality is in sharp contrast to the rest of the industrialized world. Among 21 OECD nations, all but the United States require a minimum amount of vacation, with most mandating at least 20 days a year. Even workaholic Japan requires 10 days of paid vacation plus 15 paid holidays annually. The U.K. requires 28 vacation days; France mandates 30.

Mayor de Blasio thinks all workers should have the right to paid personal time. It’s an idea he’s been talking about a lot as he pursues his long-shot bid for President. Here in New York City, he recently proposed requiring private sector employers of five or more to provide their workers with 10 days of paid personal time annually. Employees, including part-timers, would accrue a given amount of vacation leave for every 30 hours worked, much like paid sick time is now earned under the city’s paid sick leave law.

Opponents argue that requiring paid vacation will hurt local businesses already stretching to absorb New York’s $15 minimum wage and other recent labor protections. But a new report from researchers at The New School and the National Employment Law Project counters that contention with evidence that the city’s restaurant and fast-food industries are thriving. Over the five-year period since the minimum wage rose from $7.25 an hour in 2013 to $15 for employers of 11 or more at the end of 2018, restaurant jobs, wages and numbers have all gone up.

While providing paid vacation will add to labor costs, making it a legal requirement will level the playing field, enabling employers to provide paid leave without fears they will be undercut by others who fail to provide basic benefits.

Our polling found widespread and intense support for paid vacation as the next step in ensuring basic workers’ rights. Eighty percent of New Yorkers surveyed favored requiring New York City employers to give their workers at least 10 days a year of paid vacation — including 70% who strongly favored the idea.

Summer may be over, but this Labor Day, New Yorkers say they need a vacation. When will they get it?

Rankin is vice president for policy research at the Community Service Society.