The end of summer vacation.

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
June 11 2008 4:50 PM

The End of Summer Vacation

A workplace crisis that Obama and McCain could actually fix.

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If Barack Obama and John McCain want to show they care about those much-discussed working-class voters, they would be wise to address the time squeeze. Many voters want their states to do what California and New Jersey have done: provide six weeks of paid family leave. (Washington state offers five weeks; similar bills have been introduced in Arizona, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New York, and Pennsylvania.) According to the pollster Celinda Lake, 89 percent of voters support legislating paid sick days, while 76 percent favor legislating paid family leave even if the financing would cost all workers $1 of their paychecks a week. At the moment, however, only San Francisco and the District of Columbia have enacted laws guaranteeing paid sick days. In California and Connecticut, one house, but not both, of the state legislature has approved paid sick days, while similar bills have been introduced in 10 other states.

The presidential candidates may not be able to end wage stagnation. Nor can they halt globalization and the way it erodes job security for factory workers and white-collar workers alike. But they just might be able to ease the time squeeze. They can enact laws that guarantee paid vacation. They can also press for legislation providing for paid sick days and paid family leave. Many family-advocacy groups, feminists, and labor unions argue that these measures would go far to reduce tensions between balancing job and family.

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Yes, there will be a cost. Many business groups complain that these measures would reduce employer flexibility and increase payroll costs, perhaps significantly. On the other hand, companies that already provide paid vacations, sick days, and parental leave wouldn't mind if their competitors were required to do likewise. And it's worth noting that many corporations that provide these benefits have grown and thrived. Moreover, paid sick days might prove to increase productivity by sending more flu-stricken workers home, where they won't infect everyone else.

And politically speaking, you could imagine Sens. McCain or Obama waving the justice baton about the time squeeze and getting widespread credit for it. Job creep, work/home imbalance, stress—these are problems that unite feminists and Reagan Democrats, family-values conservatives and pro-worker liberals. Maybe we're all too busy at work to lift up our heads and notice what's happening to us or too nervous about the economic downturn to protest. But if a presidential candidate did that for us, wouldn't he hear a lot of amens?

Steven Greenhouse is the labor and workplace reporter for the New York Times. His new book is The Big Squeeze: Tough Times for the American Worker.