Full Employment, Quits and Private Tyrannies

I’m going to start this post with an admission of privilege-based cluelessness. When I was younger I learned of a friend-of-a-friend who hated her job. She was sexually harassed by her boss and had to deal with co-workers who created a very hostile workplace for her. While working there she developed some pretty severe health problems, and thus also had a “job lock” issue. She couldn’t quit her job and find a new one without losing access to crucial health care services she needed to survive.

I hate to admit that randomly getting assigned to team Healthy White Dude at birth put me at a place where the younger me thought “that couldn’t happen” until, thinking about it for a second, I realized that of course that happens, and happens every day. Realizing this, I then thought that the job lock of health insurance could create the conditions for a private form of tyranny.  Things like moving health care away from employers and towards governments while blocking preexisting conditions from killing access to health care went beyond an important part of human flourishing to the point where it functions as a check on the abuses that can take place in the private labor market.

Remember that the ability to quit your job is what is doing the work in the example above. One doesn’t have to be a strict proponent of game theory to understand that if your boss understands you can quit and find another job easily, he or she is more likely to create a respectful job atmosphere. And if your boss understands you are locked, they are much more likely to create an environment where domination is the norm. And what makes it easier to quit your job? Full employment.

With that in mind, let’s turn this over to a graph using data on quit percentages from the BLS JOLTS data. Here’s the quit percentages over the past 10 years:

Quits have plummeted in this jobless recovery, as there are very few jobs available for people to obtain elsewhere. (Karl Smith has more on the economics of this chart.) Quits can reflect positive developments.  Someone has found a better use for their talents and more interesting opportunities.  Someone has decided that what they were doing is no longer worthwhile (or worse), and has the opportunity to leave.  We see this plummeting in the current labor market.

The coverage, to whatever extent there is any, of the current unemployment crisis tends to be about the unemployed. This leads to the general idea that the problems of unemployment are concentrated among those not working.  But this has a ripple effect on those who still have a job.

For instance, let’s check out a CNN Money trend story about unused vacation days. $67 billion in vacation days, out the window:

The average employed American worker got 18 vacation days last year, but only used 14 of those desirable days off, according to a 2010 survey by Expedia.com…

Meanwhile, those four forfeited days of vacation per person add up quickly. Altogether, Americans gave up 448 million earned but unused vacation days in 2010. Considering the average wage of $39,208 for a full-time worker — that’s $67.5 billion worth of time…

Some workers say their bosses are not very supportive of them using their vacation time, others simply can’t swing it…

On the heels of the Great Recession, unemployment remains high. “Headcount is so low, salaried employees are probably doing a job-and-a-half minimum, maybe two jobs, and they can’t get away,” noted Mickey Kampsen, president of MRINetwork’s Management Recruiters of Charlottesville.

“They are trying to bring as much value as possible to their company in order to keep their job,” she said. “You’ve got to show you are one of the loyal soldiers.”

When employees don’t have any alternatives in the job market squeezing like this is very likely to happen.

No matter what your meta-philosophical motivations are, you should find this fairly offensive. There’s a strain of political philosophy that puts a lot of weight on the idea that people are entitled to whatever their endowments, talents and labor produces. Vacation hours here are earned benefits – they are part of labor contract negotiations – but this compensation is lost to workers in a weak economy like this. Their necessity to show that they are “loyal soliders” means forgoing compensation that they are entitled through their work.

There’s strains of political philosophy that worries a lot about participation in local communities, through families, civic groups, churches, associations such as the proverbial bowling team and other things that bind us together. Not being able to take vacation days directly impacts and reflects a larger problem for the time available for life in our communities and with our families and friends – vacation time that would otherwise be used for building those things is lost because employers know that their employees have few other options.

In addition to things like the employment-population ratio, I recommend we think that people having the freedom to quit their jobs again as being part of a healthy economy and watch it during the rest of the year.

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10 Responses to Full Employment, Quits and Private Tyrannies

  1. Mike:
    If I didn’t know any better, I would think that the powers that be like it this way. From the CEO’s to those in Washington, D.C.

  2. kh says:

    You might be interested in Michael Kalecki’s Political Aspects of Full Employment:

  3. To paraphrase Stiglitz, we need to see banksters in orange jumpsuits doing the perp walk before any recovery will take place. So, if you want the DISemployment numbers to change, consider advocating for that.

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  5. dsoares64 says:

    An employee can quit a job to go to the next job but that employee will most likely have to wait 90 to 120 days to join the new health plan.The employee can maintain coverage during this wait period by using COBRA and paying an unsubsidized price. In effect, an employee will pay a penalty of whatever percentage the previous employer paid into the health insurance plan as well as losing the ability to pay for health insurance on a pre-tax basis on a paycheck.

  6. Michael Turner says:

    It’s almost like … well, like there oughta be a law: during recessions and (weak) recoveries, employees *must* take accumulated vacation at least once a year. The vacated seats and workstations would increase the demand for labor. It would also spur demand for recreation, which in turn would create more labor demand. I.e., there’s more than just a “social capital” argument here — there’s real stimulus potential going to waste when people avoid taking vacations because of employer intimidation. While we’re at it, let’s take a page from French stimulus policies: mandate a less-than-40-hour workweek. Work-week hours limitations were a feature of some U.S. Federal work programs during the Great Depression, so there is a U.S. precedent, one that’s still (albeit just barely) within living memory.

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  8. TGGP says:

    I don’t take vacation days because I don’t want to. I would prefer if I could have negotiated for fewer vacation days (they’re actually lax enough at my current workplace that it’s basically up to the employee to decide what seems reasonable) and more salary, but their employment contracts tend to be more one size fits all (the H.R lady was also aghast that I wanted no health insurance and to just pay the mandate, so I had to knuckle under and buy the cheapest plan).

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