Needed: A Leave Sharing Law for All

When it comes to giving employees time off, American employers are way behind the rest of the industrial world. American employers are not required to give employees any vacation. When I worked for Montgomery Ward I was entitled to a week of vacation a year. Considering how little they paid me I was amazed they gave me any time off with pay at all. At least it didn’t cost them much.

The de facto minimum vacation for full time salaried workers in the United States these days is two weeks. Some employers force employees to draw from a block of leave to be used for both sickness and vacation. Longer-term employees usually get three weeks of vacation a year. But from inquiring my friends I have found that it is pretty unusual for any private sector employee to accrue much more than three weeks of vacation a year these days. Non-profit and educational organizations are often the exception.

Other countries are much more progressive than the United States. Argentina, hardly one of the top industrial economies, mandates a minimum of two weeks of vacation for each employee. The European Union requires at least four weeks of vacation, but it is often more depending on the country. For example, France requires at minimum of five weeks of vacation. Spain requires at least thirty calendar days of vacation a year.

Federal employees like myself have what now seems to be very generous leave policies. During the first three years of employment you earn four hours of leave every two weeks, which translates to about two and a half weeks of vacation a year. From years four through fifteen you earn six hours a pay period, or close to four weeks a year. If you hang in beyond fifteen years you earn European levels of vacation: eight hours a pay period. This is a bit over five weeks of vacation a year. But federal employees also earn sick leave: four hours every two weeks. Unused sick leave accrues from year to year. Because of my accrued sick leave from over twenty years in the civil service I am well prepared financially for a long-term medical problem.

However not all civil servants are so fortunate. I have an employee who is dealing with major medical issues in his family. The situation is unlikely to improve in the short term. Not surprisingly he has exhausted all of his sick and annual leave, yet still he has to provide care to his very sick wife and manage his children. Fortunately the Family and Medical Leave Act allows him to keep his job while he take care of his family. But for most employees this would also mean his income would also stop.

Fortunately the federal government goes the extra mile and offers civil servants leave sharing. Basically it allows employees who are dealing with major life crises and have exhausted all of their leave to petition their colleagues for help. Those coworkers who choose can give the employee some of their leave.

This is one of those progressive and painless ideas that should be law. In our increasingly expensive world many people are living closer to the margins. Such is the case with my employee who bought his first house only a few years ago. He has just started building assets. I encouraged him to apply for leave sharing and he eventually agreed. While there is no guarantee that other employees will donate their leave, he is well known and respected so he is already getting significant donations. And unfortunately he will need it and more. I am hopeful that the many generous employees where I work will keep contributing their leave to him until his crisis has finally passed.

Leave sharing in the federal government is not automatic. A physician must document the need. The employee must apply for it. And the employee’s supervisor has the right to reject his request. Of course few supervisors are so heartless. The leave can only be used to deal with the care he needs for himself or his family.

What leave sharing amounts to is a fairly painless way for someone dealing with major family problems to keep their financial head above water. Even with leave sharing financial solvency is no guarantee. Major medical issues often bring hospitalization and other costs that can leave an employee deeply in debt or even in bankruptcy. But having a steady income coming in during the emergency and the promise of a job when the crisis is over can be a godsend.

I had one coworker who donated his leave to my employee immediately. He told me that a few years ago he had major back problems. They had him immobilized for many months. He burned through all his leave too, even though he had plenty of it. He too had the leave sharing option and fortunately his coworkers came through for him too. He told me he would have become bankrupt now without it. Now that he is in a position to return the favor and he does so gladly. “I donated some of my hours,” he told me. “And I will give him more leave if he needs it.” I agree. And so will I.

Not surprisingly, leave sharing was not an idea that came out of a Republican administration. Rather it was an initiative of President Clinton. It was an outgrowth of the Family and Medical Leave Act, passed into law by a Democratic Congress back in 1993. The following year Clinton issued regulations that created the federal leave sharing program. At the time of course there were the usual blathering that the FMLA would leave the United States less competitive. Happily twelve years later the skeptics have been proven wrong. The public has warmly embraced FMLA. Those employees who work for progressive employers that offer leave sharing have even more for which to be grateful.

I hope some future (and doubtless more progressive) Congress passes a universal leave sharing law. It is really a no-brainer. By keeping many people out of bankruptcy, it is good for the nation’s creditors. It saves the government money by keeping many of these people off welfare roles or from drawing food stamps. And in fact it really doesn’t cost employers anything. Leave costs just shuffle from one employee to another. It usually saves employees money because long term employees are more likely to have leave to donate, and they tend to cost employers more money. But most importantly leave sharing can be an enormous source of comfort for people who already have their hands full dealing with tremendously challenging personal problems.

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