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Monday, November 26, 2012

Oregonian Report on City Council Vacations Raises Unintentional Question: Shouldn't We All Have More?

Posted by Denis C. Theriault on Mon, Nov 26, 2012 at 12:59 PM

In case you missed it while otherwise living your life to the fullest, the Oregonian devoted some space his holiday weekend to a story that examines this year's vacation count by the Portland City Council—and makes sure to make the point that our city's elected officials are entitled to unlimited time off.

It's the kind of story editors refer to as a "talker"—designed to raise eyebrows and stir up the passions of an otherwise staid readership. The piece touches on what seems like an issue of basic fairness: Politicians enjoying a perk available to few other workers, whether they're inside government or not. We learn that Dan Saltzman has taken seven weeks off this year, which is genuinely pretty surprising. But then we also learn that most other officials have taken somewhere between just three and four weeks—figures that include sick time.

Meanwhile, it mentions just one solution for this glaring inequity (before subtly rapping our elected officials for being too politically timid to tackle it): Paring that benefit back to something more pedestrian. Which means it's missing a much wider point about how the community should treat its workers.

Should Portlanders care how often their city leaders vacation? Does it matter as long as decisions are made and bureaus run smoothly? Is it fair that elected leaders get more than 25-year city employees, who top out at five weeks' vacation and three personal days?

All reasonable questions, the leaders say. But don't look for any reforms.

"I can certainly understand the perception of unfairness," said Commissioner-elect Steve Novick, adding that he'd be happy to impose restrictions on himself, with an exception for a honeymoon.

"I think three weeks of vacation plus a normal allotment of holidays is reasonable," he said.

Left unmentioned is a better way to make things more fair: Give more workers this kind of perk—putting us on par with the world's other great industrial civilizations. Some Americans receive no paid vacation, with most lucky to have just two weeks. (Here's the obligatory link to Europe's super progressive vacation policies—weeks upon weeks of time off, even in austerity-loving places like Germany.) The answer might not be unlimited time off, necessarily, but why not a discussion about letting every worker in Portland have three or four weeks? Or even—gasp—five?

It doesn't seem much of a stretch from the city's current discussion over requiring employers to also provide paid sick time. I don't know how many days off the O gives its employees, but I know that my last job at a daily afforded me with four weeks (and, for many years, five), not including sick time and holidays. Senior employees at the Mercury get something close.

And if city officials really are abusing their perk—not clear in this story, but always a possibility—then voters can fire them. Like anyone who isn't doing their job.

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