When people can't afford time off


When people can't afford time off

Too many working people don’t take a day off.

Now, given the figures on unemployment, nationally and in one’s own particular location, and given the real, heart-breaking stories about long-term unemployment despite repeated attempts to find a job (any job), that may not seem like a major problem.

"At least they’re working," you (and I) might think.

So let me clarify.

Too many working people can’t take a day off.

They can’t afford to. Taking even one day off costs them money in lost wages, money they can’t afford to do without.

These are folks earning minimum wage, or close to it, at an hourly rate. No salaries in these positions; no benefits, like paid days off. And the majority of these workers are part-timers, which also means that the majority are working more than one job, if they can find additional work.

Trying to make ends meet

When one works more than one part-time job, it might appear that there is plenty of ";time off.” But that appearance is deceiving.

"Time off" from one part-time job is time when one is not scheduled with one employer, time when one can be scheduled with another employer. Many, many people these days spend their time keeping track of when they are scheduled amongst their various jobs.

It feels a lot like juggling, trying to keep two or three (or more) balls up in the air at once.

And if one of those balls gets dropped? Well, financial disaster could be the result.

These people don’t take vacations. They can’t afford to do that. What they can afford to do, for as long as they can physically do it, is work, seven days a week.

Sometimes they work two jobs a day, most days. Sometimes it is just a matter of three days a week at one job, four days at another. And for some, a third job gets shoehorned into that schedule.

The next time you are in any retail establishment, large or small, chain or independent, take a good look at the sales clerks ringing up your purchase, or stocking the shelves, or even the supervisors hearing your complaints.

For the majority of these workers, this is not their only job. In fact, for most of them, this is their second job. Their first job might be in a bank, or a call center or in a warehouse distribution center. They might be teachers, or administrative assistants or musicians. They might even be pastors.

Some of them are supplementing income, since wages are pretty stagnant in this ongoing economy.

Some are trying to put their working lives back together following a layoff, or the closing of their previous place of employment or being "down-sized."

Piecing it together

They can’t find jobs in their previous line of work, in what they were trained to do, full-time work with regular hours and regular salaries. So they are finding work where they can, earning what they can, and sometimes making it up as they go along.

But they aren’t taking vacations. They can’t afford to, financially. And they can’t afford to send the signal to their employers that they don’t need this job, want this job and rely on this job.

They don’t want to give their employers any reason to think that they, the part-time employees, are expendable and easily replaceable. In this economy, taking a vacation could be expensive in more than one way. It’s better to stay and work.

Does this matter to us in the church?

It does, or it should, for two reasons. First, these workers, many of them (more than you might think), are part of our congregations.

They may not be there every Sunday, or even most Sundays (they’re working on Sundays, you see). But many are church members and people of faith.

The full extent of their over-scheduled, under-benefited work lives may have escaped our attention. After all, finding the time to sit down and talk about what has happened and is happening in their lives is difficult.

This may also be a subject that they have difficulty discussing, especially if they used to do something else, something full-time, something considered "professional."

And second, the Bible has something to say about this. In fact, it has a lot to say about this, about the treatment of workers and about allowing workers to have time for rest without being penalized for it.

The giving of the third commandment is the basis for this, both in Exodus and in Deuteronomy. Exodus 20:9-11 notes that six days were given for working, "but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work -- you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns" (v. 10), with the rationale being that as the Lord God took the seventh day as a day of rest, so should God’s people.

Deuteronomy 5:15 adds that God’s people are no longer slaves; slaves don’t get to take days off, but now that they are free the observance of the Sabbath is a witness to God’s actions in setting them free from slavery in Egypt. They get a day off!

Something is always wrong when workers can’t afford to take a day off, when they can’t afford to have a time of vacation from the stress of their labors. Employers aren’t the villains in this; they also are caught in the stresses and fears of this time.

And turning back the clock to a time when the markets didn’t operate on a 24-hour-seven-days-a-week relentless schedule isn’t practical or possible. A universally observed day of rest may be a thing of the rapidly receding past.

For many who are piecing together jobs there is also the fact that part-time employment does not offer other benefits. There is no sick time, health insurance, paid holidays or unemployment compensation. ELCA members may be able to help through programs in their congregations or working through other advocacy agencies.

All work and no play

But maintaining the practice of working non-stop is not healthy -- physically, mentally or spiritually.

Ignoring the growing dependence our economy and society places upon what amounts to wage-slavery is neither wise nor does it adhere to what our Lord God has decreed is good.

It does not honor the workers among us; it does not honor our relationship to God nor to one another.

We need to open our eyes to see what is happening with more and more working people, those we come in contact with every day. We need to make some personal decisions about our own actions and habits.

We need to have conversations about these matters, particularly with the people who are most affected by this, the workers themselves.

We need to think, long and hard, about what it would take to restore (or establish!) business practices that allowed workers to have days off, and times for vacation, without penalty and without loss of pay.

Such thinking and conversations promise to raise uncomfortable questions, and even some threatening proposals, among us.

But the cost of not doing this is higher, in our relationships with those around us, and in our relationship with the Lord God, who sees human beings as having dignity, honor and needing to take days of rest without fear or coercion.

All work and no rest is not the vision of life in the realm of God. We need to reassert that the gift of Sabbath rest is for all workers and shape our lives and practices according to God’s economy.


Erma Wolf is an ordained pastor seeking a call to an ELCA congregation. She is also part of the adjunct faculty for the Institute of Lutheran Theology.

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