Workers across the country will be kicking back, firing up the grill and relishing the last gasps of summer on Monday to celebrate Labor Day. But even though the federal holiday is meant to observe hard-won gains for workplace rights and working standards over the years, many workers won’t be resting with paid time off.
Unlike most other developed countries, the U.S. does not like to mandate that employers give workers any time off with pay. Just as there is no federal requirement regarding vacation or sick days, there is no law regarding paid holidays. So even though the federal government closes for official holidays like Labor Day, private employers don’t have to give workers the day off. And if they do, they don’t have to pay them.
It’s not like that in many other countries. A 2013 analysis of laws in 21 of the world’s wealthiest nations found that 13 of them mandate some number of paid holidays. Austria and Portugal guarantee 13. Belgium, Germany and New Zealand guarantee 10. France only guarantees one, but the country mandates a whopping 30 days of paid vacation. The U.S. guarantees none of either.
With paid holidays being optional, it should come as no surprise that lower-wage workers are less likely to enjoy them than higher-wage workers. As HuffPost reported in 2015, the majority of workers on the bottom of the economic ladder are not offered paid holidays at work.
Only 40 percent of private-sector workers in the lowest 10 percent of the wage scale get holidays with pay, according to the most recent survey from Bureau of Labor Statistics. Workers in the top 10 percent of the scale are much better off: 93 percent of them can enjoy paid holidays. The same dichotomy holds for paid sick leave ― 31 percent versus 92 percent ― as well as paid vacation days ― 41 percent versus 92 percent.
Service workers are the least likely of all employees to get paid holidays, with only half eligible for them. The most likely to receive them are white-collar professionals in business and finance, 97 percent of whom get paid holidays, according to the BLS.
Just because a worker doesn’t get paid holidays, doesn’t mean they’ll have to work on Labor Day. But if the worker’s boss lets them take the day off, they’ll be forgoing a day’s pay.
There’s been a lot of movement at the city and state level ― and a little bit at the federal level ― to start guaranteeing workers at least some paid time off each year. Connecticut became the first state to pass a paid sick leave law, in 2011. It was followed by California, Massachusetts, Oregon and Vermont. Many liberal cities have also enacted their own paid leave ordinances that employers must abide by.
Backers of the paid sick leave laws have made their argument based on both economics and public health. No one wants restaurant workers, for instance, handling food while they’re battling the flu. But the movement for guaranteed paid holidays or vacation time has gained much less traction in the U.S., even though polling shows that Americans by and large like the idea. In a HuffPost/YouGov poll done in 2014, three-quarters of respondents approved of a paid vacation mandate.
The issue has had a couple of champions in Congress in recent years. One of them is Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). The former presidential contender introduced a bill in 2015, the Guaranteed Paid Vacation Act, that would require all employers with at least 15 workers to provide two weeks of paid vacation to anyone with at least a year on the job.
“This is already done in almost every other major country on earth,” Sanders said on the Senate floor at the time.
The bill never made it out of committee.