Work and federal holidays

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Why is Presidents Day even a holiday? Why specifically celebrate on Feb. 21? Which president is being celebrated? When was it created? Why was it created? What is the point? Well, Presidents Day wasn’t always Presidents Day. At first, it was a holiday created in 1879 that commemorated George Washington’s birthday, Feb. 22, as a national holiday. But the issue was that there were other influential presidents who had birthdays in the same time period. For example, Abraham Lincoln’s birthday was Feb. 12. So, states started making Feb. 22 into a more generalized holiday, with some variations of it called Presidents Day.

This changed in 1971, when the Uniform Monday Holiday Act — passed in 1968 — went into effect. It was an effort by Congress to create more three-day weekends for federal employees during the year, which President Lyndon B. Johnson wrote in his statement when he signed the bill in 1968. These federal holidays included the creation of Columbus Day on the second Monday in October, moving Memorial Day from May 30 to the last Monday of May, and establishing Presidents Day on the third Monday of February instead of Feb. 22. Veteran’s Day was also changed to the fourth Monday of October for a little bit so that October could have two three-day weekends, but it was changed back to the original November 11th date in 1978.

Creating more federal holidays also was meant to have a positive impact on both Americans and the private sector. President Johnson hoped that more long weekends would allow families to spend more time with each other, travel more, and consume more. Additionally, he hoped moving holidays to Mondays would spare the private sector the logistical troubles of midweek holidays. The federal holiday bill was a small improvement meant to tap into a deeper fundamental issue: the length of the average American’s work week.

In 1880, when American labor movements, populists, and farmer’s movements started gaining momentum, the average American workday was almost 10 hours. Prior to the Industrial Revolution, those hours tended to be longer. With increases in productivity and increased consumption, many workers demanded 8-hour days. Their wish was granted during the Great Depression. The Fair Labor Standards Act was passed in 1938 and established 40-hour work weeks, overtime pay, and a minimum wage. Naturally, many people had complaints, which President Roosevelt responded to with one of the most honest statements ever spoken by an American president:

“Do not let any calamity-howling executive with an income of $1,000 a day, who has been turning his employees over to the Government relief rolls in order to preserve his company's undistributed reserves, tell you — using his stockholders' money to pay the postage for his personal opinions — that a wage of $11 a week is going to have a disastrous effect on all American industry.”

This perfectly taps into the heart of the issue that both the Fair Labor Standards Act and the Uniform Monday Holiday Act tried to address. Expansion and innovation are rooted in exploitation of labor, and the benefits of the resulting progress were hoarded by rent-seeking elites maximizing their profit. Demands for fair working conditions, more time off for leisure, living wages, and livable conditions were those workers asking for the benefits of the progress to apply to them. It was not sensible or sustainable for the capitalists to make the vast majority of the profit while laborers would see their wages stagnate or get cut during economic crises.

In economics, one of the fundamental conflicts that receives a lot of attention is the tradeoff between work and leisure. This is a basic model that many have likely seen in an introductory microeconomics course. There is a budget, there are a limited number of hours, and then workers get to split their time between work and leisure based on the budget. But, this isn’t really how things work, in reality. Actually, most people don’t really get to pick how many hours they work. There’s a set number of hours people have to work in the week which their company dictates. There is supposed to be a ceiling on the number of hours, but most Americans are working more than 40 hours a week even in the modern economy.

The model also doesn’t account for the growth in productivity and efficiency that gets brought about by technological advances. Before technology advanced, long work days were common because that’s what was needed. But, with new innovation and more efficient methods of production, long work days were no longer necessary. Henry Ford transitioned his company to a 40 hour work week from 48, and it ended up increasing productivity. It turns out giving workers a break rather than making them do more work than they needed to do made them better at their jobs while giving them more to do with their lives other than work. The federal holiday bill inadvertently is an acknowledgement of this fact.

In our current structure, 40 hour work days are not productive. In my experience, at least five to ten hours of my week was just a waste because I didn’t have anything to do, and many other workers have this experience too. In one survey, 64% of employees visited non-work related sites at work every day, many of them for hours at a time. The three most cited reasons for the “time waste” at work were that people didn’t feel challenged, they worked too many hours, or the company didn’t give them enough incentive to work harder. Stagnating wages and rising costs of living only exacerbate these issues. There are some pushing for four day work weeks to address the labor productivity issue, similar to what is implemented in some European countries.

I can’t help but return to the simple, work-leisure tradeoff model. The answer to the labor issue is in one detail of the model: It should be the worker’s choice how they divide their time. Putting a ceiling on the amount of hours worked or having guaranteed holidays and vacation time is good, but it isn’t enough. The relationship between worker and company needs to be redefined for what we have now, and allowing employees flexibility in their hours will certainly do more to address the issues affecting millions of Americans than giving them a seemingly random day off on the third Monday of February meant to commemorate dead presidents.