POLITICS

This Bernie Sanders Idea Treats All Workers Like They're Real People

05/27/2015 01:07 pm ET | Updated May 28, 2015

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) launched his presidential campaign in Burlington, Vermont, Tuesday, ticking off a list of well-known progressive reforms he'd implement if elected, from breaking up the big banks to paid sick leave to addressing climate change and reducing inequality.

He also mentioned one that has yet to become a significant part of the national conversation: paid vacation for all workers.

The issue may not have much purchase in Washington yet, but it deeply resonates with those struggling in the economy. Beginning at the end of 2013, HuffPost began asking people to write us about what life is like in the American economy. More than 1,000 people have done so to date -- by writing to workingpoor-at-huffingtonpost.com -- and a revealing number of those made reference to vacations or, more specifically, to the pain that comes with the realization that one may never take another true vacation again.

America, as President Barack Obama often says, indeed needs a raise. But it also needs a vacation.

Many wrote to us about the normal burdens of low-wage life -- the unpredictable hours at low pay, the single mishap that can send things spiraling out of control, the difficulty making a life for the kids and the overall indignity of it all. It was all made worse, many said, by the knowledge that this may be all there is, that there was no well-earned break to look forward to.

The HuffPost series was inspired by Linda Tirado, a service-industry worker whose viral post on the decisions poor people made was turned into a book, Hand to Mouth. Tirado said Sanders deserves praise for highlighting such a central, silent issue.

"We assume that office workers need vacations and mental breaks; it's about time we realized that service workers are just as human. Looking forward to a future where every single day is either spent working or chasing work is crushing; there is no room for humanity in that life," she told HuffPost in an email. "We are more than profit machines or automatons, and every once in a while we deserve a day with no guilt, no humiliation, a day where leisure is an option. I got eight days off work, unpaid, when I gave birth to my second child; I would have taken more but couldn't afford it. It is a sin that we call ourselves a prosperous nation when any American believes they can't pursue happiness for one day now and again without shame, much less 45m or more of us."

More than 90 percent of workers in the top 25 percent of earners get paid vacations, but for those at the bottom, it's nothing like that. Here's a graph of the data by HuffPost's Alissa Scheller:

Sanders wrote about the lack of vacation days in the U.S. compared to Denmark in a 2013 HuffPost blog:

Many of our people are physically exhausted as they work the longest hours of any industrialized country and have far less paid vacation time than other major countries

In Denmark, adequate leisure and family time are considered an important part of having a good life. Every worker in Denmark is entitled to five weeks of paid vacation plus 11 paid holidays. The United States is the only major country that does not guarantee its workers paid vacation time. The result is that fewer than half of lower-paid hourly wage workers in our country receive any paid vacation days.

Recently the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) found that the Danish people rank among the happiest in the world among some 40 countries that were studied. America did not crack the top 10.

The very idea that all workers, in exchange for contributing to the economic growth of the country, deserve some time off not because they're sick, but just to relax, flips our perception of low-wage labor on its head. But the policy itself, as long as wages stayed low, might not enable more than just a day in the backyard. At the federal minimum wage of $7.25, a paid day off would yield a worker $58; 40 hours' worth would bring in $290 before taxes -- barely enough for a plane ticket, let alone sufficient for a family vacation, assuming that the worker has been living paycheck to paycheck and has not been able to save much.

To fully allow low-wage workers to take a vacation, the federal tax policy might have to get involved. Currently, the tax code offers credits and other encouragement for everything from having children to owning a home to health care to saving for retirement and college. It could also include a vacation tax credit -- a refundable benefit that could only be used to relax.

"If we want to increase productivity, mental and physical health and even life expectancy, not to mention overall life satisfaction - we'll seriously look at initiatives like these," Tirado said.

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