Commentary: Our labor of leisure
SAN DIEGO -- Americans have the unalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of ... leisure? You would think so, given how hard some of our brethren fight for R & R -- even in a recession.
This Labor Day, let's rummage through one of the great paradoxes of the modern American work force.
As any human resource manager or chief operating officer will tell you, these are lean times. The national unemployment rate is above 9 percent; in Michigan, it is 15 percent. And many of those with steady jobs have been forced to take unpaid furloughs and told to forget about raises. They don't complain because, in this climate, they just feel lucky to be working. But at the same time, some of those who are still employed are clamoring for more vacation time. How crazy is that? Part of the population is complaining about not being able to work, while another part is complaining about not being able to take a break from work. More Americans feel as though their jobs are running them instead of the other way around. And they want a respite, if only for a few weeks a year.
So here comes Congress to the rescue. In May, Rep. Alan Grayson, D-Fla., proposed the Paid Vacation Act. It marks the first time federal legislation has been introduced that would require employers to give employees guaranteed paid vacation time.
Supporters, among them the advocacy group Take Back Your Time, insist that this is a modest proposal, noting that some European countries provide as much as 30 days of paid vacation every year.
Grayson, whose district includes Orlando, got the inspiration for his bill while at Disney World. That makes sense. The idea of mandating vacation time is positively Goofy. Right now, many employers have a tough enough time just trying to keep the lights on.
Unfortunately, it could be an easy pitch to voters. I hear from readers who, when listing the characteristics of their dream job, talk about how they want enough "free time" to enjoy family and friends. In fact, I hear that requirement listed more often than a big salary, generous benefits or likable co-workers. Now and then, I even hear from readers who almost seem to brag about their lack of a work ethic, holding it up as a sign of progress and evidence that they've achieved a cushier life than their parents and grandparents.
Good for them. But it's probably not so good for the rest of society. Immigration restrictionists have been nursing this fantasy that, confronted with hard economic times, American office workers would swap their briefcases for pruning sheers and head to the fields to do those tough and dirty jobs that -- it is rumored -- Americans won't do.
And yet, there have been few sightings. Having just returned from a trip home to Central California, I saw plenty of workers picking fruit in 100-degree temperatures. But none looked like native-born Americans -- unless, of course, they were Mexican-Americans. The fruit pickers all appeared to be Hispanic. What are the odds?
Actually, they're pretty good, according to a recent article in The Wall Street Journal about the California dairy industry. It talked about how farmers can't get Americans to work as "milkers," so they have to rely on Hispanic immigrant labor. The work is hard, dirty and tedious -- and the hours are brutal.
Don't act so surprised. People don't change who they are because the U.S. economy goes through a downturn. They know things will get better, and many of them will wait out the storm rather than take jobs they consider beneath them. Consider the depressing but revealing case of the 57-year-old municipal worker from Los Angeles who wrote me to say that illegal immigrants swipe jobs away from unskilled workers, and then tried to prove that he wasn't one of the latter.
"I make $75,000 per yr approximately," he noted. "I work, actual work about 5 hrs per day. Get paid for 8 hrs. ... I am not competing with Jose for a job."
Ruben Navarrette's e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.