Why You Should Work Less

During his first re-election campaign, FDR came to Bedford, Massachusetts in 1936, stumping for four more years of New Deal.

In the crowd was a young girl with an envelope. She tried to make her way to the President to give him the enveloped note but was turned away by a policeman. Roosevelt told one of his aides: "Get the note from the girl."

The young girl's note read: "I wish you could do something to help us girls ... We have been working in a sewing factory, ... and up to a few months ago we were getting our minimum pay of $11 a week ... Today the 200 of us girls have been cut down to $4 and $5 and $6 a week."

A reporter asked President Franklin about the note. "Something has to be done about the elimination of child labor and long hours and starvation wages," was his reply.

Two years later, Roosevelt signed the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), establishing the minimum wage and 40-hour work week.

A few years ago, I was invited to the cozy confines of the Fetzer Institute in Kalamazoo, Michigan to participate in a weeklong retreat with other writers, activists and thinkers. For hours on end, we talked about the sorry state of the world and what we thought could be done to make it better. Like most of these kind of gatherings, we broke into small discussion groups to probe particular social problems more deeply.

John de Graaf, a longtime television producer and creator of the award-winning documentary "Affluenza," was in my discussion group. He noted the irony of how we live in the most affluent society in the history of the world, yet are increasingly time-poor. John had put his finger on the number one reason why people often can't do anything other than try and make their own lives better -- there's no time for anything else.

Then someone brought up FLSA and said, since FDR signed the bill into law, the time most people spent laboring had only increased -- to the point where, for millions of gainfully employed Americans, working 40-hours a week doesn't pay the bills. An increased workload also diminished most people's ability to even spend quality time with their families, to say nothing about getting involved in social activism.

What we needed, John said, was to "take back our time." And at that moment, Take Back Your Time Day was born; meant to symbolize a "challenge (to) the epidemic of overwork, over-scheduling and time famine that now threatens our health, our families and relationships, our communities and our environment."

Today, John's vision has grown into a 7,400-member citizens organization, pushing for labor-friendly policies and more free time. This year, Take Back Your Time Day (Oct. 24) is celebrating the 70th anniversary of FSLA while calling for a new labor law that would make paid vacation a guaranteed right and not just a voluntary benefit employers "offer" workers.

A recent poll conducted by the Opinion Research Corporation found 69 percent of Americans support guarantee paid vacation law, with the largest percentage of respondents favoring a law guaranteeing three weeks vacation or more. Every demographic showed majority support for a vacation law. Only 27 percent said they opposed the idea.

Respondents were also asked how many weeks of vacation were needed to prevent "burnout." 52 percent said they need three weeks or more and 82 percent said they needed at least two weeks.

The survey also uncovered a sad feature of working life in America. Almost a third of working Americans (28 percent) took no vacation time at all; half took a week or less; and two-thirds got less than two weeks off. The median vacation time: 8.2 days, far below the three weeks most cited as the needed amount of time-off to prevent burnout.

The eighth annual Expedia.com vacation survey backs that up, reporting for "the eighth consecutive year, Americans received and used the smallest amount of vacation time among their (European) counterparts abroad."

Even worse, despite reporting an average of 14 paid vacation days again this year, about a third of employed U.S. adults will not even use all the vacation days they do get.

"Again this year, employed U.S. adults will leave an average of three vacation days on the table, in essence giving back more than 460 million vacation days in 2008. Despite these statistics, Americans do see the value in vacation, with more than one-third (39 percent) reporting they feel more productive and better about their job upon returning from vacation and 52 percent claiming to feel rested, rejuvenated and reconnected to their personal life."

"Work responsibilities" was cited as the biggest deterrent to taking vacation. And even when Americans do take vacation, 24 percent "report that they check work e-mail or voicemail while vacationing." That's up from 16 percent in 2005.

All of this has significant economic implications, de Graaf points out. "Time off is essential to health. Men who don't take regular vacations are 32 percent more likely to suffer from heart disease than those who do, and women are 50 percent more likely. If we want to cover everyone and reduce the cost of health care, one way to do it is to improve our health, and every study shows that more time off can help do that."

Seeing as how both Obama and McCain like to talk about health care and "creating more jobs," I've been meaning to pass a note to their respective campaigns: "I wish you could do something to help us take back our time. Let me tell you about Take Back Your Time Day."

I just haven't had the time.


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