By Dave Jamieson
Each year, on the last Monday of May, millions of Americans ditch work to hit the beach, light up the barbecue or catch a ballgame in honor of those who died serving our country. To top it off, we typically get paid just as if we’d clocked in for the day — not a bad way to kick off summer.
That is, unless we happen to work on the bottom rungs of the economic ladder. Compared to their better-paid counterparts, American workers in low-wage jobs are vastly less likely to get paid holidays through work. That means come Memorial Day, they face a downer of a choice: Either show up and work the shift, or forgo a day’s pay in order to relax on the holiday.
Among private-sector workers whose pay falls in the bottom quartile, not even half enjoy access to paid holidays, according to the most recent estimates from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Yet more than 90 percent of workers in the top quartile receive such benefits.
The disparity is even greater at the outer edges of the income scale. Barely one-third of workers in the lowest 10 percent see paid holidays, compared to 93 percent of workers in the highest 10 percent.
The inequality should come as little surprise. Paid holidays are a form of compensation, just like wages, health coverage or a 401(k), and low-wage workers tend to get weaker benefits on the whole than middle- and high-income earners. In fact, as you drop down the income scale, workers become less likely to have any form of paid leave at all, be it sick days or vacation time.
Most other advanced economies don’t have the same disparity, because they have laws mandating that businesses provide workers with paid time off. This is most true when it comes to vacation time. In an analysis of laws in 21 countries that are members of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, the Center for Economic and Policy Research, a left-leaning think tank, found that all but the U.S. guarantee at least some paid vacation.