World

A right to vacation? NYC idea prompts debate over having paid days off

AP

A debate over whether New York City should require paid vacation in a pioneering move has both sides saying: Give me a break.

Mayor Bill de Blasio wants New York to become the first place in the 50 states to make private businesses provide time off with pay. He casts the idea, which is awaiting City Council action, as a next frontier in workers’ rights.

His plan resonates with people like Barbara Vasquez, a former Manhattan retail worker who has struggled with health problems that exhausted the sick leave she accrued as a part-timer.

The 25-year-old likes working and needed the money, but she quit after a little over a year to nurture her health.

“Paid vacations would have helped,” said Vasquez. “I actually think I would have been a much better employee because I wouldn’t have been so burned out.”

But some owners of small business in the city say paid vacation would pile on pressures following increases in the minimum wage and a requirement for paid sick leave in recent years. Under the Democratic mayor’s proposal, most businesses would have to give full-time workers at least 10 paid vacation days a year, pro-rated for part-timers, besides sick time.

Dawn Casale, the founder of One Girl Cookies, a Brooklyn bakery with three retail shops and about 40 employees, said, “I would love to be able to provide vacation time to my employees … but the reality of it is not whether or not we want to give it — it’s whether we can give it.” They get paid time off after five years, or if they are managers; others can arrange unpaid vacation, she said.

Casale says she is not against the mayor’s proposal but feels the city needs to help small businesses make ends meet, perhaps by helping them negotiate health insurance as a group. “You can’t weather every storm,” said Casale, who said she stopped searching for a fourth location because she doesn’t find the city conducive to expanding her business.

Many countries require paid vacation, as does the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico. But experts on labor law aren’t aware of any similar laws within the 50 American states.

Still, about three-quarters of private-sector workers had the benefit as of 2017, the latest federal Bureau of Labor Statistics data show. Federal employees and most state and local government workers also get paid time off.

An estimated 500,000 full- and part-time workers in New York City shops, restaurants and other businesses don’t, city officials estimate.

“They miss parent-teacher conferences, they miss school plays, they miss weddings, they miss family occasions, they miss funerals,” de Blasio said in January.

And “sometimes people just need a break,” the mayor said. “You ever hear the phrase ‘mental health day?'”

Proposals for a paid vacation law have been floated in the Democrat-dominated City Council for five years, and Speaker Corey Johnson says he supports the concept. He said he is reviewing the mayor’s plan, which would apply to all businesses with five or more employees, and monitoring a different version that has been introduced in the council.

Eleven states and dozens of cities have passed laws on paid sick leave in the last 13 years, though several other states blocked them. Advocates see paid vacation as a logical next step.

“We shouldn’t have to argue that people have more than one reason that they need time,” said Ellen Bravo, director of Family Values @ Work, a national network of campaigns for paid sick leave.

They have pitched sick days partly as a public-health benefit: Encouraging ailing people to stay home would help curb contagion.

De Blasio acknowledged vacation doesn’t have the same impact on the population at large. But he said it is “not a healthy society” when half a million New Yorkers can’t take a personal day without taking a financial hit.

Andrew Rigie, who runs the industry group NYC Hospitality Alliance, says that what is not healthy is the business climate for some members of the group.

Many restaurants have told the alliance they plan to cut jobs or workers’ hours this year because of minimum wage hikes — they vary by business size and other factors — let alone any potential paid vacation requirement, Rigie said.

“We’re concerned that there may not be the types of opportunity that there have been for people” in a field traditionally accessible to immigrants, students and others, he said.

The mayor questions the argument that paid vacations will cost jobs overall. He notes that similar arguments were made about the 2014 sick-leave law, but employment grew.

The total number of jobs in New York City was up 11.8 percent over the five years that ended in December, compared to 9.4 percent in the nation as a whole.

Vasquez, meanwhile, is feeling better and job-hunting with some help from the Retail Action Project, a workers’ advocacy group.

She says if she someday got a job with paid days off, she wouldn’t use them lightly.

“For me, vacations would be more for my health,” she said.