Civic engagement leave: Democracy takes time, employers can provide it

Illustration of an office worker traveling to a polling place and voting
Lucy Yang/Staff

Related Posts

It’s sad, but it’s true: People often don’t have time to be civically engaged. Unfortunately, the current presidential administration isn’t working to change that, so it is on employers to empower their employees to participate in civic affairs. They can do so by providing paid civic leave, giving all employees the opportunity to momentarily step back from their jobs and into the civic sphere.

Whether or not you think a lack of time is a good excuse for infrequent or zero civic engagement, it’s a reality that must be addressed if our democracy is going to survive this public health crisis. Being civically engaged involves simple but powerful acts such as voting, attending city council meetings and volunteering with local campaigns. Just as physical health requires regular exercise, civic health depends on frequent community engagement. But, those muscles have grown weak for many Americans.

Some Americans don’t have the equipment — this is the case in states where access to the ballot has been more difficult by virtue of fewer polling stations, greater identification requirements and shorter voter registration windows. Look no further than Georgia, where some voters stood in the Southern sun for more than four hours to cast a vote.

Other Americans don’t have a trainer — millions of Americans lack a civic coach or mentor. Civic education has gone by the wayside, leaving young Americans without crucial, early encouragement to establish their civic exercise routine.

Finally, people of color as well as people experiencing financial or housing insecurity are often denied the opportunity to meaningfully and safely participate in civic exercises such as protesting.

Employers fortunate enough to have a business model relatively unaffected by COVID-19 are in a unique situation to develop the civic strength of their employees. In this era of increased remote working, it’s become readily apparent that flexible work arrangements need not decrease productivity.

Across the United States, employers have adjusted to the needs of employees with kids, those with unstable Wi-Fi and even those with barking dogs. All of these changes have occurred within the span of weeks and have yet to derail the continuation of business as normal (whatever normal means in the era of COVID-19).

However, employers that have maintained some degree of normalcy need to make one more adjustment: civic engagement leave. In the same way that COVID-19 has exposed our public health failures, the pandemic and recent unconscionable police activities have revealed the abysmal state of our civic health. Many of the protesters who have taken to the streets don’t plan on stepping into the ballot box, citing a lack of faith in the political system.

Employers should respond to that disillusionment with the same urgency and flexibility as they did to COVID-19. More specifically, employers should set aside paid time off for employees to participate in our democracy, both during the pandemic and beyond.

Civic leave is far from unprecedented. In fact, it’s enshrined in Australia’s labor laws. In Australia, there’s no limit on the amount of community service leave an employee can take. The employee need only provide their employer with adequate notice and evidence of their participation.

Closer to home, Drexel University provides each of its eligible employees with an excused absence of up to 16 hours within a 12-month period. Closer still, some Bay Area employers have announced extended civic leave policies during these tumultuous times.

It’s true that the current financial calamity will prevent many employers from considering such an offering. Employers that have been forced to halt operations, slash their head counts or operate on shoestring budgets should understandably be exempt (for now) from undertaking a formal civic leave policy. However, for those employers that have been able to continue relatively smoothly (e.g., Big Tech), it’s time to think about more than just employees’ mental and physical health.

By bringing more people into the civic sphere, faith can be restored in our political system and both employees and employers can benefit. More participation by a broader range of individuals can upend the notion that our political system caters only to those with special interests or deep pockets. Those outcomes are untenable so long as people see the formal means of changing our electoral system — voting, for example — as ineffective and inadequate.

Somewhat ironically, by making everyday citizens feel like they can be as influential as corporate lobbyists, corporations may end up saving money. Currently, corporations spend billions on trying to bend the ears of officials, seeing such spending as a worthwhile investment. Greater civic participation by more individuals will limit the efficacy of that enormous spending by making officials more attentive to voters.

Our nation’s democracy is in need of some revitalizing exercise and fresh air. Our democracy needs an influx of participation, not from those with special interests or deep pockets, but from the average Joe and Jane citizens. Employers can help Americans jump-start their civic routines and exercise their democratic rights. A more engaged citizenry isn’t just good for our democracy, it also bolsters bottom lines.

Kevin Frazier is a student at the UC Berkeley School of Law and the founder of Neighbors for Nonprofits.