“Labor Day, the first Monday in September, is a creation of the labor movement and is dedicated to the social and economic achievements of American workers. It constitutes a yearly national tribute to the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of our country.” So begins the Department of Labor’s[i] website regarding the history of Labor Day. It ends with this statement: The vital force of labor added materially to the highest standard of living and the greatest production the world has ever known and has brought us closer to the realization of our traditional ideals of economic and political democracy. It is appropriate, therefore, that the nation pay tribute on Labor Day to the creator of so much of the nation’s strength, freedom, and leadership — the American worker.”
Only a fraction of workers have Labor Day as a paid holiday. In Tuscaloosa, over 200 establishments will be open this Labor Day. In a 2013 survey[ii], 39% of employers nationwide will be requiring their employees to work Labor Day. The tribute offered by the nation becomes only a symbolic gesture; it is no longer a sincere offer of gratitude to the American worker.
I wonder if the life expectancy of Americans ranking 34th in the world, tied with Cuba, Columbia, Qatar, Costa Rica, and Nauru is in part because we do not honor the notion of a Sabbath. Every nation that has surpassed our life expectancy by years—require employers to offer paid vacation and many of them also require paid holidays. The US does not. Even Japan with its stricter work ethic than the US requires companies to offer 10 days of paid vacation leave. Their life expectancy is number one in the world at 84 years. Every single nation that excels in life expectancy over the US has a minimum of 10 days required paid leave in addition to paid holiday leave. Most of these nations total between 25 and 35 days of paid leave a year.
Is there a correlation between paid leave and life expectancy? I don’t know. What has been studied is that there is a correlation between income and life expectancy. An increase of $10K a year for someone who is in the bottom 25% of income does more to increase their life expectancy while a reduction of $10K for someone who is in the top tiers of income has little impact on their life expectancy.
According to National Employment Law Project, 60% of businesses are in favor of a $12 an hour minimum wage. This wage would give the lowest paid wage earners in our country that $10K a year increase and have a positive impact on their health and life expectancy.
The average life expectancy in the US for males is 76 years of age. The difference between expectancy between a male whose income is in the upper tiers of income versus the lower tiers of income is 6 years[iii]. The argument to make the poor wait for retirement benefits does not make sense when life expectancy improvement is concentrated in the wealthy. Retirement should not be the only time we get to experience rest from our labors. My hunch is that we would enjoy more and longer retirement years if we are able to take paid leaves throughout our work lives.
The Center for Economic Policy report from 2013 found that 69% of small businesses in the US are less likely to offer paid vacation time. Only 49% of low wage workers have paid vacation time versus 90% of high wage workers. The ability to have time off should not be only reserved for those in high hourly wage or salaried positions. Time off is important for our general wellbeing, not only physical health but mental and spiritual health as well.
When I was executive director of a small non-profit, it was important to me that my employees had the ability to take paid time off from work—be it sick, vacation, or personal days regardless of hours worked. It was pro-rated based on their hours worked. The work was demanding and stressful enough to have to also worry about a sick child at home. Every part time employee had a pro-rated equivalent of two weeks off their first year and it increased to four weeks after 5 years of employment. Our turnover was low in part because of this ability to offer paid leave. The philosophy I employed was that if the employer can assist in taking care of the basics for the employee then that will translate into increased productivity. Having the ability to have time off when needed was a vital basic need.
We simply don’t do Sabbath well. When I was growing up we had in New York State what was called the Blue Laws, there are versions of these elsewhere as well. But when I was a child, one version of the Blue laws was that stores were closed on Sunday. End of discussion. It was meant to be a guaranteed day of rest.
Oliver Sacks describes his family’s Sabbath[iv]: [The family] mingled outside the synagogue after the service — and we would usually walk to the house of my Auntie Florrie and her three children to say a Kiddush, accompanied by sweet red wine and honey cakes, just enough to stimulate our appetites for lunch. After a cold lunch at home — gefilte fish, poached salmon, beetroot jelly — Saturday afternoons … would be devoted to family visits. Uncles and aunts and cousins would visit us for tea, or we them; we all lived within walking distance of one another.
“Remember the Sabbath Day and keep it holy.” Yes, the blue laws of my childhood had its origins in the Jewish and Christian notions of the Sabbath. But there are benefits of having a weekly Sabbath Rest and our society can’t even tolerate one day a year to be held distinct from all others for all its citizens.
Former Senator Joseph Lieberman wrote a book[v] on his practice of Sabbath as an observant Jew. He writes: “The benefits of the Sabbath, a Day of Rest, are many. One is just rest. As the Bible says, `Six days shalt thou labor and do all thy work: but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord, your God: in it thou shalt not do any work.’ It refreshes you physically and mentally. It gives you time.”
Dedicating a day of rest by making it different from every other day of the week is also a way to honor your own life and the lives of your loved ones. It is a means to recognize that your life has inherent worth and dignity. It declares your life and the life of your loved ones are worthy of respect and love. Senator Lieberman buys fresh flowers for his wife every Friday before the Sabbath, not because he is a romantic but because his observance of the Sabbath commands him to celebrate the love between him and his wife. This simple act sets the day apart from the week. The Sabbath, Senator Lieberman states, is meant to engage “the senses—sight, sound, taste, smell, and touch—with beautiful settings, soaring melodies, wonderful food and wine, and lots of love. It is a time to reconnect with family and friends—and, of course, with God, the Creator of everything we have time to ‘sense’ on the Sabbath.”
However, we have made it nearly impossible for families to have a Sabbath day rest. Our low wage earners in order to make ends meet are forced to have multiple jobs. According to information gathered by Engage Alabama in Birmingham, the poverty level for a single mom with two kids is $19,700 yet a full time position at minimum wage only pays her $15,080. Keep in mind, 69% of small businesses do not offer paid leave of any kind. She misses work she loses pay.
Even if she was able to secure full time employment at $8.50 an hour, she still remains in poverty with an annual income of $17,500. She will still need a second part time job to bring her above the poverty level and the likelihood that position will offer paid leave is even less. Full time employees should not find themselves living in poverty. They should be able to earn enough to meet their basic needs.
If she was earning $10.10 an hour, she would be making $21,000 a year and would be able to qualify for health insurance for $50 a month through the federal marketplace. If the minimum wage of $1.60 in 1968 had kept up with inflation, the minimum wage would be $10.90 today.
Franklin D. Roosevelt when he introduced his National Industry Recovery Act[vi] in 1933, stated: It seems to me to be equally plain that no business which depends for existence on paying less than living wages to its workers has any right to continue in this country. By “business” I mean the whole of commerce as well as the whole of industry; by workers I mean all workers, the white collar class as well as [those] in overalls; and by living wages I mean more than a bare subsistence level-I mean the wages of decent living.
When the minimum wage was first created nationally in 1938, it was meant to be a living wage. But that is not how it has worked out. Minimum wages have become stuck points in time. In 2009, the current minimum wage of $7.25 an hour was set. To purchase something that cost $7.25 in 2009, today would cost $8.07. It simply does not have the same purchasing power that it had.
Birmingham earlier this year passed a minimum wage of $10.10 an hour that will go into effect in January 2017. They added to that ordinance the mandate that every year after that, minimum wage would be adjusted for inflation every January 1st. This is the common sense thing to do and should have been included in 1968 when the $1.60 minimum wage was set.
There are over 17,500 low wage workers in the top 25 occupations in Tuscaloosa. Imagine what a minimum wage of $10.10 an hour would do for these people who are working hard yet finding themselves stuck in poverty and needing public assistance.
Our single mom would be able to come off of public assistance, spend more time with her children, and have an increased quality of life. She would have more income to buy locally the things she needs for her family. Raising local wages would put more money into the local economy which in turns generates increased revenue for local businesses.
With the ability to meet basic needs, our low wage workers would be able to take a much desired breath. For every dollar raise they receive means an additional $150 per month after taxes. A worker making $8 an hour, making $10.10 an hour would earn $300 more per month. That $300 would make a huge difference in their lives.
It would ultimately result in lifting all wages in the community. And how does that support Sabbath rest? If a low wage earner is able to reduce the number of jobs needed to support their family because their rate of pay has increased, it would allow them to have that time with their loved ones. It would strengthen the family unit. It would reduce the stress they face that threatens their health and potentially extend their life expectancy.
If we could then convince employers that it is in their best interests to have healthy happy employees by offering health benefits, by offering paid leave—vacation, sick, holidays, and personal days; then we can begin to see how a Sabbath rest, a day dedicated to nurturing our souls and our families souls can transform our society.
Those of us fortunate to have paid leave, or two days off a week, consider taking one day to set it aside for family and friends only. Choose to not do chores that day so your attention can be focused on your loved ones. Couples, make that a date night. Families make that a family day of activities that are not chores around the house. If you are fortunate to work for one of the 61% employers that are not requiring you to work Labor Day, then use tomorrow to rest, have that BBQ outside with family and friends. Finish your shopping chores today so you won’t be shopping tomorrow. Let the other 39% realize that it cost them more money to stay open than closing to honor this day.
Oliver Sacks closed his Sabbath reflection with these words: what is meant by living a good and worthwhile life — achieving a sense of peace within oneself. I find my thoughts drifting to the Sabbath, the day of rest, the seventh day of the week, and perhaps the seventh day of one’s life as well, when one can feel that one’s work is done, and one may, in good conscience, rest.
Oliver Sacks died a few days after writing these words for the New York Times. May we choose to not wait til one’s last days on this earth to ponder what is living a good and worthwhile life—achieving a sense of peace within oneself but may we instead create that day to reflect, to ponder, to celebrate the life we have been given with our loved ones as part of our weekly practice. Blessed be.
[i] As found September 4 2015, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/16/opinion/sunday/oliver-sacks-sabbath.html?_r=0
[ii] Lieberman, The Gift of Rest, Howard Books, 2011
[v] As found on September 5, 2015, http://business.time.com/2013/08/30/this-labor-day-much-of-america-will-be-laboring/