New York City Could Pave Way for More Paid Leave in US

Mayor Bill de Blasio proposed an ordinance this month that would make New York City the first city in the country to mandate paid time off for its workers. His proposal would guarantee almost all the city’s workers at least two weeks a year of paid leave. (The smallest businesses are exempted.)

This is a big step in bringing the country more in line with the rest of the world. Workers in every other wealthy country can count on some amount of paid time off. The European Union requires that all its members give workers at least four weeks a year of paid vacation. Several countries give more than five weeks a year of paid leave.

While many better-educated and better-paid workers in the United States do get paid vacation, as do most union workers, many lower-paid workers get zero time off. If they don’t work, they don’t get paid. Mayor de Blasio’s proposal is a first step toward changing this situation.

Unfortunately, people in the United States tend to view the length of the work week and work year as being largely fixed. This is a large part of the story behind the bizarre fear that robots will take all the jobs. This fear is bizarre first and foremost because we are seeing extremely low rates of productivity growth. This weak growth is expected by almost all forecasters to persist into the indefinite future.

The other reason the “robots taking all the jobs” story is bizarre is because an obvious way to deal with reduced demand for labor is to shorten the amount of time associated with a job. For a given amount of work, if the average job is half as many hours, we will then have twice as many jobs.

Of course, things in the real world are never quite that simple, but the basic story is right. If the average job is fewer hours, then we will have more jobs.

The idea of reducing work hours and increasing the amount of leisure time available to workers should not be a strange notion. Many of the biggest labor battles of the nineteenth century and the first few decades of the twentieth century were over the eight-hour day. Millions of workers went on strike for a 40-hour workweek, and some even died as a result of violent attacks on protesting workers. When the Fair Labor Standards Act made the 40-hour workweek the law of the land in 1937, it was the culmination of a long hard struggle.

Unfortunately, the workweek/work year has been largely frozen in the United States even as it has gotten shorter in Germany, the Netherlands, and other wealthy countries. Back in 1970, the United States would have been in the middle of the pack in terms of the length of an average work year.

Now we are an outlier, with US workers putting in even more hours than notoriously hardworking Japanese workers. The average work year in the United States is more than 25 percent longer than in Germany, France, and other Northern European countries.

This is not just a question of hours worked as a scorecard. The point of having more vacation, paid family leave, and other opportunities to be away from a job, is to be able to enjoy life. That is why workers in the United States pushed so hard to get an eight-hour day and why workers in other wealthy countries have continued to push for reductions in work time as a way to get part of the benefits of higher productivity.

There is also an environmental aspect to reduced work time. People in the United States emit more than twice as much greenhouse gases per person as people in Europe. While there are many factors that explain this difference, such as poor quality mass transit and lower energy prices, part of it can be explained by the lack of leisure time.

Saving 10 minutes by driving to work, rather than taking a bus, makes much more sense in a context where workers are pressed for time. If we could get closer to European work hours, we may get closer to European emission levels, which would be really good news for the planet.

Of course, there are many other issues here. Many people struggle now to pay for their health care, their rent, and their kids’ education. If we expect people to do anything with their leisure time other than worry about paying their bills, then we have to move toward Medicare for All, free college and affordable housing, but shorter hours and longer vacations should play an important role in our vision for the future.

De Blasio’s measure is for just two weeks of vacation, and it only applies to one city, but this is a really important first step. Assuming this becomes the law in New York City, it will be a great model for the rest of the country.