Sunday, February 22, 2009

Let's Work to Live!

Then God blessed the seventh day and sanctified it, because in it He rested from all His work which God had created and made.

— Genesis 2:3

To try and make sure that we all got our day of rest (whether we wanted it or not) religious groups got behind the enactment of so-called blue laws to restrict activities or sales of goods on the sabbath day (Sunday for Christians).

Fortunately, these heavy-handed rules of conduct have been mostly repealed. But an amazing number of these laws are still on the books and enforced in many states in the US. These laws mostly restrict alcohol sales but others restrict other activities from selling cars to hunting on Sunday.

Since these laws are clearly written around religious doctrine, it is hard to understand how they have not all been struck down as unconstitutional. Clearly the separation of church and state is taking a beating here.

But there are also secular concerns especially in the US about whether we are getting enough of those days of rest. While repealing most of the blue laws now allows most businesses to stay open on Sundays so we can shop, it also means that many of us now have to work on Sundays. (Chick-fil-A Restaurants has notably bucked this trend.)

And with many businesses now staying open on more holidays, it also means that — you guessed it — many of us now have to work on holidays.

There is nothing wrong with working Sundays and holidays for those who wish to do so — especially if premium pay is offered. And with our present recession, businesses that used to be closed on Sundays and holidays are now opening on those days to try and drum up more business. But when people are forced to work Sundays and holidays in order to keep their jobs, we lose opportunities to spend quality time with family and friends which slowly but surely erodes our quality of life. Interestingly enough, some of the blue laws are actually supported by the industries they regulate. For example in my state and a few others, automobile sales are prohibited on Sundays. And that’s just fine with most of the auto dealers who like their Sundays off. After all, if the law were repealed, a few of the dealers would likely start Sunday sales forcing everybody else to give up their Sundays to compete.

Even more distressing is how vacation time is shrinking for many people in the US which is already among the countries whose workers get the least amount of vacation time.

Compared to almost every other country, Americans work longer and harder and vacation the least. But before you get bent out of shape about the inhumane ways of U.S. employers, know this: Your boss isn't obligated to give you any vacation time. Why? Because the U.S. is one of the very few industrialized countries where the government doesn't regulate benefits in the private work sector.

Americans work two weeks longer than the work-till-you-drop Japanese, and two months longer than the Germans, who sometimes receive up to 15 weeks paid vacation each year, according to the Hay Group, a human resource consulting firm.

Unlike other countries that have mandatory minimum vacation times for all workers, Americans need to spend many years at a single employer to earn the same amount of vacation time that is routinely available to workers in other countries. But with many companies now laying off employees, that is being lost too. It’s bad enough that US workers are getting shortchanged on the quantity of vacation compared to many other countries. But in many cases, they are also being cheated out of the quality of what vacation time they do spend.

With staffing cut to the bone in many places, many workers feel they have to bring their laptops and cell phones along on vacation to avoid having to dig out of a massive hole after their return to work. And while many companies have ‘use it or lose it’ vacation policies, they also make it difficult to get away when it is busy (which is conveniently for the employer, just about always). The result is that instead of using the vacation days for a nice summer getaway or two, the days are often burned off during the winter downtime at the end of the year or given back to the employer if there are too many days left untaken.

The growing lack of leisure time in the US is a quality of life issue that has been overlooked for too long now. Comparing life expectancies by country, it appears that most of the countries in Europe do better than the US. While some of this may be due to Europe’s better availability of health care to all regardless of social class, I think a lot of it is due to a ‘work to live’ mentality that is predominant in Europe as compared to a ‘live to work’ mentality that is so prized by ambitious workers in the US and often encouraged by their employers. In contrast, leisure time is an indispensable part of most European cultures whether it is time off from work or just spending quality time with friends or loved ones over a leisurely meal.

But perhaps the extraordinary amount of leisure time that Europeans enjoy can be too much of a good thing. Critics feel that the output of European workers compared to American workers has been slipping because of this. But clearly the other extreme is in place in the US workplace where productivity has been steadily increasing but the rewards in the way of wages and leisure time have been stagnant. And all too often, US workers have found that working so hard to the point of possibly compromising their health can still result in them being laid off in today’s economy.

Joe Robinson, author of the book Work to Live, has outlined a number of worthwhile suggestions in
Bring back the 40 hour workweek -- and let us take a long vacation. In addition to some suggested changes in corporate culture to help prevent burnout, other suggestions advocate that the US enact some laws to guarantee some basic benefits in among other areas, vacation time and sick leave that workers presently take for granted in many other countries in the world. In a country like the US where corporate profits normally take precedence over the welfare of the workers who helped to produce those profits, this goes against the grain. But with an Obama presidency that promises to be more pro-labor as opposed to the previous administration that seemed to look out only for the interests of business, things may finally change for the better when it comes to the American worker. They deserve no less!

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