Family Values @ Work

U.S. Trails World in Paid Time Off as 40% Don’t Get Money

August 17, 2012

About 40 percent of U.S. workers, or more than 55 million Americans, don’t get paid when they take vacation or sick days, the government reported.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics said in a report yesterday that leave policies by U.S. employers tend to be a patchwork of individual arrangements that favor healthy, well-educated professional employees.

The report underscores how the U.S. is lagging on such policies. It’s the only advanced economy without a national leave policy guaranteeing a break for employees, said John Schmitt, a senior economist at the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington. Austria guarantees as many as 43 paid days off, and a young German worker can take as many as 40.

“Of the 15 most economically developed countries, 14 have sick and vacation time off,” Schmitt said in a telephone interview. “We’re the outlier.”

The report shows that employees in some industries fare better than others. The 8.1 million Americans working in the financial industry in 2011 were twice as likely as the nation’s 8.7 million construction workers to have paid time off, according to the bureau’s American Time Use Survey, which attempts to track how much time U.S. residents devote to activities ranging from job-searching to dog-walking.

The lowest rates were in the leisure and hospitality sector, where fewer than one in four workers reported receiving paid vacation or sick days.

‘Avoid Stress’

Celina Alvarez, a 48-year-old native of Michoacan, Mexico, said she discovered the danger of going without sick leave last February, when she developed a rapid heartbeat.

Alvarez, who worked as a food preparer at a Mexican restaurant in Corona, Queens, was sent by her doctor to a hospital for two weeks of monitoring, she said in a telephone interview through an interpreter. When she returned, Alvarez was told she had lost her job. She’s currently unemployed.

“I have to avoid stress,” she said.

Gracie Fowler, a 35-year-old single mother of two, said her job as a title processor at a small Orlando, Florida, mortgage company can be stressful enough without the possibility of losing a paycheck because of illness.

“I don’t feel like I have the worst situation in the world,” she said. “But it’s nerve-racking. How is it that we can’t be certain? We’re humans, sometimes we need health care.”

Full, Part Time

The BLS reported that workers with a bachelor’s degree were more than twice as likely as high school dropouts to have paid leave.

The largest difference was between full-time and part-time workers. Americans with full-time jobs were more than three times as likely to have paid time off than the 22 percent of part-time employees who had that benefit.

Almost 83 percent of employees in the highest quartile of earnings, or those who made more than $1,231 weekly, had paid time off. Barely half of workers who made less than $540 per week had the same benefit.

About one in five U.S. workers took leave during an average week in 2011, the agency reported. The average leave taken on any given week amounted to 15.6 hours. Almost 30 percent of time off was designated as vacation, with 22 percent citing illness or medical care. Another 16.5 percent took off for errands or personal reasons.

The U.S. hasn’t passed major policy regulating employee time since 1993, when President Bill Clinton signed the Family and Medical Leave Act. The law requires large employers to offer unpaid leave to workers, generally covering illness or childbirth.

‘Employee Abuse’

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has pushed for changes in the law, claiming parts of it have led to “widespread employer confusion and employee abuse,” according to the Washington-based organization’s website.

A New York City law that would require paid sick leave is being blocked by City Council Speaker Christine Quinn. A Quinnipiac University poll released yesterday found that almost three of four voters support the bill, which would require businesses to provide as many as nine paid sick days annually.

Quinn said she wouldn’t bring the bill to a vote because of concern about its possible impact on businesses. Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, the founder and majority owner of Bloomberg LP, parent company of Bloomberg News, said he would veto the legislation.

Schmitt said requiring paid leave hasn’t hurt other economies. Germany has one of the strongest economies in Europe, he said.

“When I come to work sick and make co-workers or customers sick, that’s not good for the economy,” Ellen Bravo, executive director of Family Values @ Work, a Milwaukee-based advocacy network, said in a telephone interview. “If I lose my job, that’s not good for the economy. If I can’t pay my bills, that’s not good for the economy, either.”