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Elections 2020

Why more workers are getting paid time off on Election Day

Janet Nguyen Oct 1, 2020
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Anne Tennyson, a resident from Reno, Nevada, has volunteered to work the early voting polls in October, where she’ll greet and herd the crowds. And she won’t have to worry about missing work because her employer, Patagonia, is giving her paid time off to do it. 

“Being able to support democracy, while being supported by my company is beyond what anybody has ever offered to me before,” Tennyson said. 

Because there is no federal law giving people a day off to vote, getting the opportunity to participate in the electoral process has fallen into the hands of employers. Generally, large companies with white-collar workers are the ones that tend to give their employees the day off, said Allison Penelope Anoll, a political science professor at Vanderbilt University. 

“By making it more likely that those groups are going to vote, you may actually have nefarious consequences on equity of turnout,” Anoll said. “From a democratic perspective … we care whether who turns out is a representative sample of the populace.”

Patagonia is part of a growing list of companies — which include Old Navy, Coca-Cola, Verizon  and Apple— that are either giving their employees paid time off on Election Day or encouraging them to work election polls. A large percentage of these polls are typically staffed by elderly workers, but they’re at high risk of COVID-19, which has led to poll worker shortages this year.

U.S. politicians have tried for decades to give workers the day off on Election Day and make it a federal holiday to no avail — a contrast with most other developed nations, which hold their national elections on weekends. Michele Swers, a professor of American government at Georgetown University, told Marketplace that creating any federal holiday is difficult and “would be like trying to pass a constitutional amendment.”

In 2016, nearly 56% of the U.S. voting-age population cast ballots in the 2016 presidential election, which puts the nation behind most developed countries, according to the Pew Research Center.

In response to low voter turnout, initiatives like Time to Vote (a coalition led by the business community) and Electionday.org have launched in recent years and are pushing companies to give their employees paid time off. 

Why more companies are getting on board 

Michael D. Martinez, a political science professor at the University of Florida, said he thinks more companies are implementing policies like these partly because it helps bolster their brand.

“They can point to these activities, as well as others, that support their corporate image of being good corporate citizens in their communities,” Martinez said.

Swers told Marketplace back in 2016 that companies are likely resistant to adding another holiday to their work schedule, since it would cost them money and productivity. But if more companies continue to do it? “More and more companies will realize that there may be less of a competitive disadvantage in terms of productivity,” Martinez said. 

Electionday.org now has more than 750 participating companies, which has doubled since the beginning of the year, according to Nora Gilbert, the partnership director of Vote.org, which launched the initiative.

The initiative gives companies policy recommendations, which include providing paid time off to employees on and before Election Day, providing them with reliable and accurate information about voting in their states, and encouraging voting by mail. 

Gilbert said one of the reasons she thinks more companies are participating is that there’s been a reckoning around the role that corporate America plays in our society. Especially this year. 

Back in June, scores of brands began to embrace the Black Lives Matter movement and expressed solidarity with anti-racism campaigns following the death of George Floyd. 

“With the growing protest movement and racial justice movement happening across the country, corporate America is really held to account for whether or not they are walking the walk,” she said. “There are consumers and audiences that are making decisions based on how companies step up in moments like these.”

Which companies provide time off to vote?

When it comes to companies willing to provide paid time off, Gilbert said it tends to be easier for tech companies and companies that already have a fully remote or fully salaried workforce, while it’s more difficult for retail companies, restaurants and companies that have a workforce comprised of hourly wage workers. In those cases, it can be tricky to manage their shift schedules. 

“It’s a much harder logistical challenge,” she noted. “And there’s also, arguably, a greater financial burden to those companies to implement a policy like that.”

Tennyson said that working restaurant and retail jobs in the past, along with raising two daughters, had made it difficult for her to find the time to vote. 

“I remember specifically in 2008 I couldn’t get time to vote, and I remember going home and crying. That election for me was so big,” she said. 

Changes to how we vote

Because of the COVID-19 crisis, more Americans than ever are expected to vote by mail, with most states allowing anyone to either vote absentee without a reason or using COVID-19 as a reason. That might, in theory, make it easier to vote and lessen the importance of having Election Day off. 

But Gilbert said that having Election Day shouldn’t just about your ability to cast a ballot.

“We want to be really fostering a culture of civic engagement,” she said. “It’s about being able to help others who might need to cast their ballot.”

It’s why Tennyson is working the polls this year, and plans to volunteer more in the future. She doesn’t want people to have to choose between getting a paycheck and having the opportunity to vote. 

“I’m solid working class,” she said. “More of us need to be able to have our voices heard.” 

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