09/10/2012 03:57 pm ET Updated Nov 10, 2012

Left Unsaid on Labor Day

The summer of 1894 was filled with labor-management strife, and the congressional response included passage of a law that established Labor Day as a way to honor workers. Nearly 120 years later, Labor Day is a time of parades, picnics, and rest. Today, the assertion that "employees are the most important asset of a business" is an essential mantra of companies large and small. Yet, the Department of Labor recently released new data which indicate that workers are often treated more as cogs than as human capital. The data reveal that millions of workers are given zero paid time off by their employers. It is wholly up to individual employers whether their workers get paid time off for sick days, family leave, vacation, and personal days. That is because federal law leaves unsaid something vital to workers: it is silent on a minimum standard for earned leave by private sector workers.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics has issued new findings from the American Time Use Survey, known as ATUS. For the first time, ATUS included questions about paid and unpaid leave (and job flexibility) and got answers from workers themselves. The findings deserve to be paraded at shareholder meetings and on business pages in local newspapers. In the United States:

  • 39.7 percent of workers have no paid leave whatsoever
  • 27.5 percent of full-time workers have no paid leave
  • 71.7 percent of workers in leisure and hospitality have no paid leave

Workers without paid leave lose wages (and sometimes jobs) when the flu strikes and they need to stay home to take care of themselves or to care for a family member. Or, unable to take time off, they show up sick at the job, send their children to child care with more than a sniffle or are unable to get their elders to a doctor. Studies show that, even among those workers lucky enough to have health insurance, those without sick days will delay getting medical attention and wind up in the emergency room more often than those with sick days.

Some have argued against standards for allowing workers to earn paid sick days, saying that workers can always use vacation days. These findings from ATUS show that many workers have no paid leave whatsoever -- not just earned sick days or personal days but also paid vacation. Even workers who have vacation days often must provide advance notice to their employers to use their vacation days; since bugs typically do not practice advance warning, workers who get a 'bug' are often unable to use a paid vacation day.

The U.S. is the only OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) nation that does not provide workers with any paid vacation or holiday time guaranteed by law. The nations in The European Union adhere to a floor of 20 days per year. EU nations like Germany, Austria, and Ireland offer more than the floor.

The good news is that states and localities are enacting laws to provide for earned sick days and paid family leave (for care of a new child or to address a serious illness). Connecticut, Washington, D.C., San Francisco, and Seattle all have earned sick days provisions and numerous initiatives are underway in places as diverse as Orange County, Florida; New York City, New York; and Portland, Oregon. In jurisdictions with laws in effect, employers report the requirements have not been difficult to implement and have been beneficial to their workforce. Paid family leave is state law in California, New Jersey, and Washington. Legislation has been introduced in Congress to make these policies national.

Labor Day 2012 has been celebrated. The holiday speeches left unsaid what we now know to be fact: for too many workers, there are no paid days off. Zero. That's something, instead, to shout-out.