Your Career: Should Election Day be a holiday?
Survey: Only 31 percent of employers offer workers paid time off to vote

By Eve Tahmincioglu
Published November 2nd 2008 in

The reigning Miss USA Crystle Stewart is going back home to Texas to vote in Tuesday’s presidential election because her employer, the Miss Universe Organization, gave her time off.

For three days, she’ll be away from New York, where her duties as Miss USA — everything from charitable work to attending lavish galas in the evenings — will be put on hold while she does her civic duty.

“It’s important that we all vote,” Stewart says. “And it’s important for me to show people how important it is.”

Paula Shugart, the president of Miss Universe, says Miss Teen USA Stevi Perry, 18, also has been given the day off to vote, and the organization’s 26 full-time employees can come in late or leave early so they can get to the polls — and won’t be docked pay. “Voting is a right and everyone should exercise it,” she says.

Unfortunately, not all employers are as patriotic as Shugart.

A survey just released from the Society of Human Resource Management found that only 31 percent of employers offer paid time off to their employees so they can vote and only 24 percent offer unpaid time off.

Since Election Day is not a national holiday — despite legislative efforts to create one — employers are under no real pressure to give their workers time to vote. There is a patchwork of state laws that govern voting and workers, but largely it’s up to the employees themselves to fit in a trip to the polls before work, during lunch or after the daily grind. (See chart below on specific state voting/employee laws.)

“There are some jobs, and some people have multiple jobs, that it’s not a realistic option to vote unless employees get time off from their boss,” says Adam Fogel, program director for voting advocacy group FairVote. “If they’re working a day and evening shift, or have kids at home to take care of, those folks can’t easily get to the polls and stand in line for one or two hours.”

Record turnout expected
And by most accounts, many voters may be waiting on long lines this time around. Voter turnout at polling centers across the country is expected to be record breaking this year given the historic nature of the election. So, getting employers on board, Fogel adds, is critical.

“Employers should give workers paid time off and set up a process by which they can verify they voted,” he explains.

Fogel believes voter participation would be higher if employers were more flexible about granting time off.

Voter turnout has hovered around the 49 percent to 55 percent mark since the 1960s, says Kate Kelly, author of "Election Day: An American Holiday, An American History."

It’s a long way from colonial times when Election Day was a “self-imposed holiday,” she explains.

“It gave people an occasion to come together,” she says. “They got all the agricultural chores done, picked up people on the way to town, and there would be festivities on the village green. Often they’d roast a pig or cow.”

That fervor for a community celebration, Kelly acknowledges, has gone by the wayside. And she suspects there will be many people having to choose between work and voting this year.

“I think lines will be long,” she says. “Some people will have to say, ‘I’ve got to stay and vote,’ and others will say, ‘I can’t leave my job site this long.’”

Volunteer at the polls
Some employers, even though they are in the minority, plan to do whatever they can to take the pressure off.

In October, Tanya Hornsby, an office manager for Denver-based online publisher Associated Content, received this e-mail from the company president, Luke Beatty:

Election Day will be a “work from home/do-what-you-need-to day” at AC. Hopefully, aside from voting, you can unearth some time to volunteer, however you see fit. For those who did not apply for a mail-in ballot, lines could be absurdly (hours) long, so you may need the time to stand around (and listen to folks complain about how poorly managed things are and how awesome it is that so many people are voting).

The Denver Election needs poll workers. Some nursing homes and other residential facilities need drivers. Polling locations need food deliveries.

The goal is to spend the day voting and helping others do the same.

— LB

“At first, I thought, ‘Woo hoo! A day off!’” she recalls, “but then I figured I would use it to help out.”

Hornsby, who works out of the firm’s New York office, is taking that message to heart and plans on volunteering at a polling site in the Bronx tomorrow.

The decision to give workers the day off made sense, according to Associated Content’s president Beatty.

“I felt like it was the right thing to do,” he says, adding that he expects those workers who take the whole day off to do something to help the election process.

“When I was in grade school, we were involved in taking people from nursing homes to vote. That crossed my mind,” he says about deciding to give everyone paid leave.

How will he make sure that workers are actually helping at the polling centers or driving people to vote?

“I trust everyone enough here,” he says.

Incentive: A free day off
Some employers are making it hard for workers who choose not to vote.

Bob Mullen, Director of Business Development for Complete Building Corp. in Charleston, S.C., says there are no restrictions on workers on Election Day, so they can take whatever time they need to vote.

But, he adds, “to encourage that they go early and come to work early, the first employee that shows up at the boss’s office with an ‘I Voted’ sticker gets a free day off. If everyone in the office votes and provides their ‘I Voted’ sticker as proof, the company will be treated to a harbor cruise on board the owner’s 60-foot yacht.”

“We think it will be a great time for everyone and further incentive for everyone to partake in their civic duty,” he explains.

The 72 employees at the Atlanta office of public relations firm Edelman will be eligible for a rub down if they do their civic duty.

“In Georgia, we receive a small sticker that has become a tradition to wear around all voting day,” says Ed Patterson, vice president at the firm. “For those in our Edelman-Atlanta office who vote on that day and wear their sticker, our general manager is providing an onsite massage therapist to help us all relax after a long election cycle.”

Amen to that!