One Man's Holiday Is Another's Wasted Day

This Monday, millions of American workers took the day off in recognition of the federally designated Labor Day holiday.

Millions of others — among them police officers, firefighters, journalists, hospital workers, retailers and service and food industry workers — went to work, and will get to take their holiday not on a day selected by the government, but on a day of their own choosing, when they can best use and most enjoy a day off.

For some time now, industries and professions that cannot shut down for federally mandated holidays have been compensating workers with "floating holidays" — additional vacation days employees can use as they please.

Abolishing the concept of a federal holiday is a private sector idea that the public sector should seriously consider implementing for government employees. Should the government do so, it's very likely that even an even larger segment of the private sector would follow that lead.

There are several advantages to a "floating holiday" system. 

First, it would help alleviate the congested highways, booked beach and mountain houses and general crowding and long lines that come with our standard long weekends — Labor Day, Memorial Day and the Fourth of July. There's probably a pretty healthy percentage of the workforce that would rather spend the sweaty summer holidays at the office, and opt instead to take a three-day weekend in October or April. Or, maybe they'd rather spend a day celebrating an anniversary, a birthday, or just enjoying a random day off. 

The decrease in holiday congestion would also make the traditional holidays more enjoyable for those who choose to continue celebrating them, and would ease the burden on law enforcement, which is often stretched thin over three-day weekends.

There's also the matter of religious holidays. In an increasingly diverse America, mandated vacation time over Christmas doesn't make a lot of sense. Under the "floating vacation" model, Buddhists, Hindus, Jews and those of other non-Christian faiths could work on Christmas Day and perhaps utilize that vacation day to worship at a time more appropriate for them.

One criticism of the floating holiday system is that it would dilute some important aspects of our shared national heritage. When our elected officials designate national holidays, they're putting the federal imprimatur on those aspects of our culture that we deem important enough for a day of reflection — our national independence, a day to remember those who sacrificed their lives for our freedom, a day to give thanks for our liberty and prosperity.

But it's far from certain that a day off from work invites any special observance or shared sense of introspection and celebration. I wonder how many of us actually celebrated the history of the U.S. labor movement this past weekend, and how many of us instead went to the beach, hosted a barbecue, or washed our cars. Christians have been lamenting the over-commercialization of Christmas for a generation now. Football is as much a part of Thanksgiving as, well, giving thanks.

My guess is that making these holidays more voluntary and less mandatory would actually enhance their significance, as those taking off work to celebrate them would be choosing to do so — at the expense of taking off a different day for a different reason. Halloween, St. Patrick's Day, Valentine's Day and Ash Wednesday are all firmly ingrained in the American culture (to varying degrees of significance for different people, of course), but we don't get a day off for any of them. It's probably safe to say, however, that many Americans observe any or all of these holidays to a greater degree than, say, Columbus Day, for which the government actually gives us a day off. 

In short, a mandated day off from work has relatively little bearing on how much significance we attach to a given holiday.

Another criticism of the floating system is that the federal government and much of the private sector plans around our current work calendar. Changing the calendar would cause some disruption of scheduling and pay periods and other logistical problems, but we could implement the floating system slowly, giving federal and state governments plenty of time to adjust. Jobs that require interaction between two or more people could be accommodated for, just as they're currently accommodated for when one or more parties take standard personal vacation.

Additionally, there would be no requirement that the private sector adopt the floating system. Patriotic business owners who still want to close on Memorial Day or the Fourth of July would still be free to do so, as would Christian-oriented businesses that wish to take off Christmas or Good Friday.  

This Labor Day, I did nothing to celebrate the labor movement. I stayed home and wrote this column. In fact, given my libertarian leanings, I have relatively little in common with today's labor activists. Additionally, it's about 85 degrees, overcast, and muggy in the Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C., where I live.   

Frankly, I would have preferred to have gone to the office today, and saved my day off for one of those crisp, autumn afternoons in October, or perhaps that first 65-degree day in April.

Radley Balko maintains a Weblog at:

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