OLYMPIA — Workers in Washington could be the first in the nation to be guaranteed paid vacation time under legislation being considered by state lawmakers.
Democratic Rep. Gael Tarleton of Seattle, the prime sponsor of House Bill 2238, said the measure would require public and private employers with 25 or more employees to provide vacation leave for those who work 20 hours or more per week. It's the first bill of its kind to be introduced in the Washington legislature, according to Tarleton.
"Now we are in a place where workers are machines," she said. "We're working all the time. Everyone needs a vacation no matter what salary they earn, what title they hold, or how much seniority they have."
But some Washington business owners balk at the idea.
Jan Gee, president of the Washington Food Industry Association, said the group opposes the idea because grocery store owners, already dealing with minimum wages and thinking about paid sick leave, have their "heads spinning."
"Somebody needs to put on the brakes," she said.
Currently, no states require employers to provide paid vacation leave, according to Jeanne Mejeur of the National Conference of State Legislatures, a bipartisan research and information center.
The advocate whose work inspired this legislation said no similar bills have been introduced elsewhere in the country this year.
A bill that would have amended the Fair Labor Standards Act requiring certain employers to provide a minimum of one week paid vacation was introduced in Congress last year, but it didn't gain traction.
The U.S. is the only industrial nation that doesn't guarantee its workers any paid vacation time, according to the Center for Economic Policy and Research, which conducts professional research and public education on economic and social issues. While many U.S. employers offer paid vacation time, nearly 1 in 4 American workers receive no paid vacation or paid holidays, the center says.
Tarleton said the bill was born from a conversation with John de Graaf, a Seattle filmmaker and executive director of Take Back Your Time, an organization working for healthier workplace standards. His latest film is "The Great Vacation Squeeze."
"We might as well call this the no-vacation nation," de Graaf told the House Labor and Workforce Development Committee at a recent hearing. "We're caught up in this work, spend, consume cycle and we should think about what the impacts of that are on our health and environment."
He said the issue is also one of social justice. The lack of paid vacation is more acute for lower-wage and part-time workers and those working for small businesses, according to the economic research center.
But it isn't only the lower-wage earners. Philippe Boucher works in Microsoft's Redmond offices. He says he receives no paid time off because he's employed through a staffing agency that doesn't provide it.
"You don't work technically for Microsoft but with them, using their machines, but your paycheck comes from somebody else," he said. "We get absolutely no paid time off."
Under Tarleton's bill, paid leave would begin to accrue only after the first six months of employment. Employees would then accrue 40 hours of paid vacation in the next year, 60 hours in the second year, and 80 hours in the third. After five years, three weeks of paid vacation time would accrue annually. Employer policy would dictate when employees could use their vacation time.
Additionally, the Department of Labor and Industries could investigate paid vacation leave complaints and order an employer to credit an employee with accrued leave if a violation is found. They could also fine employers $500 for the first violation and $1,000 for a subsequent violation.
The Association of Washington Business is against the measure, said Kris Tefft.
"Our members support flexibility to be responsible to the demands of the labor market," he said. "Paid vacation is not free. It comes at the expense of other benefits an employee might want more."
Dr. Sarah Speck, a Seattle-area cardiologist, said workplace stress has become a major cause of heart disease for people in their 40s and 50s. In contrast, she said, Europeans, who are legally guaranteed at least 20 paid vacation days per year, are not seeing the same trend.
Van Collins of the Associated General Contractors of Washington said paid vacation time isn't needed in the state's construction industry because workers are already compensated with higher pay instead of vacation leave.
"Because of the temporary and intermittent nature, they have down time between projects," he said, adding that if paid vacation time was mandated, it could slow down construction projects that are usually on tight deadlines.
The House Labor Committee has not yet voted on the measure. If it advances out of the chamber it would likely face a tough time in the Senate, which is controlled by a coalition made up mostly of Republicans.
Sen. Janea Holmquist Newbry, R-Moses Lake and chairwoman of the Senate Commerce and Labor Committee, said she would support a healthy dialogue on the topic if it reaches her committee.