It’s time to give New Yorkers a break.
It’s clear to me that too often, Americans are overworked and undervalued. New York City should lead the way on workers’ rights, especially amid a national environment that treats those workers less like people and more like a commodity or a talking point. Every employee deserves paid time off to address their health, family and other fundamental life needs—to say nothing of a vacation.
Key to Well-Being
Time away from work is essential for mental health and well-being, and in turn, for productivity in the workplace when you return. Time off is not a luxury, it’s a necessity, one that many don’t have.
Right now, a quarter of American employees do not have any amount of paid personal time, a disturbing statistic that is reflected in our city. Half a million employees in the five boroughs have no guaranteed personal time off, and just as we were among the first in the nation to implement paid sick leave laws, we must move to enact legislation I first proposed in 2014 to enshrine the right to relax.
The fact that personal time is presently treated as a privilege is most clearly seen in the growing disparity between those who are able to punch out and those who are getting hit. Only 52 percent of low-wage workers have some amount of paid personal time, as compared to high-wage employees, 90 percent of whom have an amount of paid personal time off.
Far from improving, that disparity is actually growing wider. In 2007, 69 percent of low-wage employees had paid personal time. The legislation which I’m advancing in New York City would help close this gap and advance economic justice.
Need Cultural Change
This is an effort to create change not only statutorily, but culturally. Research has shown that for those workers fortunate enough to have some amount of paid leave from their employer, many end up losing that time. Americans forfeited 212 million days of vacation—or $62.2 billion—in 2017.
That loss is not healthy, for employees and the economy alike, and correcting it requires a shift in how we value working people. A cultural mindset that prioritizes work over well-being and creates fear of retaliation for any who take the time offered must change. The bill before the Council would explicitly protect employees from any discrimination or penalties as a result of exercising their right to seek time off.
And while it’s true that the issue of taking personal time is one of commitment, it’s not about commitment of an employee to their employer, but the reverse. People are not a commodity or a supply, and it is a sign of trust, of respect, of values, for employers to allow their employees the right to relax. In New York City, at least, it should soon also be a legal requirement. And just as I hope that businesses are committed to their employees, I’m committed to working with the business community—especially small businesses—bringing them to the table as we move from “not now” to “how best” to get this done.
'Behind Rest of World'
There are those who try to paint this policy as too far left, too ambitious, too progressive. But far from it, this is an area where the rest of the world far outpaces the United States. We are the only advanced economy country which does not mandate some level of paid personal leave.
Our country is far behind, our people are overworked and undervalued, and it’s time for New York City to make up for lost time.
Editor’s Note: Mr. Williams is the city’s Public Advocate.
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