Dystopia Update: Company Offers Workers Student Loan Payments Instead of Vacation

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Bloomberg reported today that the insurance company Unum is offering a “creative” deal to its workers: Swapping up to five paid vacation days for student loan payments. Ah, cool! For a moment I forgot that America is fucking insane. Thanks, Bloomberg, for reminding me.

The company argued to Bloomberg that this trade isn’t unfair, since it offers 28 days of paid leave per year, an almost French level—though it didn’t specify whether that includes sick leave. But it’s undoubtedly a horrible precedent, and a trick that other companies with less generous leave packages might pick up.

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Unum’s calculation is also way off: It’s offering what it portrays as an exact trade, swapping each paid vacation day for the same amount in loan payments that an employee earns in eight hours. But paid hours spent on vacation don’t have exactly the same value as the dollars you earn, whether they go to student loan payments or your paycheck. Paying off a student loan is an entirely financial decision; taking vacation provides a mental, spiritual benefit that can’t be measured in dollars and cents. If Unum offered two days’ worth of salary in student loan payments for each day of vacation, that perhaps would at least gesture towards understanding the extra value of days off. But they don’t.

One Unum worker spoke to Bloomberg and provided this depressing quote (emphasis ours):

Jimmy Valentine, a 30-year-old employee at Unum with $22,000 in debt, said he plans to cash in the maximum amount of vacation days every year until his loans are paid off. Like most Americans, he doesn’t use all of his vacation days, and with the benefit, he can apply an additional $1,120 a year to his debt. “I should take more days off,” he said. “But I continue to work to make sure I keep up with everything.”

This is a common problem. Most Americans still don’t take all the paid vacation that’s offered to them. It’s partly cultural—you guys just love that Protestant work ethic!—but it’s something Jimmy’s bosses should be deeply concerned about, too. If your employees feel they can’t take time off because you’re giving them so much work they can’t keep up, you’re over-working them. Hire a second Jimmy, for God’s sake.

Instead, companies have gotten very good at squeezing more and more out of workers for less. American productivity has skyrocketed even as wages remain stagnant. According to the Economic Policy Institute, productivity has risen 77 percent since the early 1970s, while wages have only risen 12 percent. (Taking vacation also happens to make workers more productive, but making arguments about what workers should have based on what maximizes their value to the company is deeply wrong, and vacation would be just as important even if it made workers less productive. It’s just interesting to note that bosses are really stupid, too.)

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To be clear, fuck Unum and its stupid name, but of course the real problem is bigger than this one company and its crackpot schemes. The problem is that student debt exists at all, let alone at the absurd levels it’s at today; that people have enough debt that they would make a choice like this; that vacation days are such a precious and rare commodity for most workers; and that the U.S. doesn’t mandate any paid leave, including sick leave or maternity leave.

If you’re lucky enough to have paid vacation, don’t give it up easily. Take every day you’re offered, whether or not you have anything in particular to do. It is your right—no, your duty—to spend a paid day watching Netflix in your underwear. For yourself; for justice for the common man; for America.

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About the author

Libby Watson

Splinter politics writer. libby.watson@splinternews.com