NYC’s plan for mandatory paid vacation really isn’t that progressive

No Americans in sight.
No Americans in sight.
Image: Reuters/Eric Gaillard
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While many New Yorkers already get paid time off from their employers, roughly 500,000 full- and part-time workers in sectors like retail and hospitality are granted no paid leave other than sick leave, according to the New York City mayor’s office.

But in January, mayor Bill de Blasio announced a plan that would make New York City the first city in the nation to entitle nearly all workers to “paid personal time.” The piece of local legislation would require all private employers with more than five employees to grant their workers 10 paid days off per year “for any purpose,” be it a family obligation, a religious holiday, or a vacation.

Sounds forward-thinking, right?

Not quite. At least when you consider that virtually every other nation in the world—96%, according to a 2012 analysis from the International Labour Organization (pdf)—already guarantees some annual paid leave to workers, regardless of their employer. The ILO found that 43% of the nations it reviewed offer 20 days or more of leave.

Indeed, the mayor himself seemed to recognize that the question shouldn’t be whether or not New Yorkers have a right to a vacation, but rather why so many Americans have tolerated living in a nation that’s a woeful, global outlier on this issue.

“Every other major nation recognizes the necessity of Paid Personal Time,” de Blasio said in a statement. “We as a country must get there, and New York City will lead the way,”

As in New York City, a majority (roughly three-quarters) of Americans do get paid time off from their employers, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. But the Fair Labor Standards Act—which covers things like working hours and overtime—does not address sick days, federal holidays, or vacation leave. Thus, the World Economic Forum notes that some American workers don’t even get public holidays off.

The system leaves some of the economy’s most vulnerable workers, if they need time off, with no option but to schedule time off work that will be unpaid—if they’re lucky enough to get it or not lose their job for asking.

The effect of having no government-mandated vacation time is cultural. The 2018 State of the American Vacation report (pdf) found that 54% of Americans who did have vacation time granted by their employers had not used it. Of those who did not use their time off, 61% reported the top barrier was the “fear of looking replaceable” or “less dedicated” to their job.

Meanwhile, in Europe, it’s common for entire facets of public life—from the corner bakery to the local government—to shut down for the month of August, as the expectation is that just about everyone is on vacation then. When paid time off is required by the government, it’s not a luxury for the rich; it’s a recognition that all workers, regardless of profession, need time off to live a healthy, humane life.

This story is part of How We’ll Win in 2019, a year-long exploration of workplace gender equality. Read more stories here.