HERE’S SOME GOOD NEWS when it comes to expanding access to voting: Massachusetts has a law that requires that employers give their workers two hours of paid time off to make it easier to vote. The bad news? Hardly anyone knows the law is on the books, it’s more than 100 years old, and does not reflect the current workforce or voting methods. It’s clear that it is time for the Commonwealth to once again lead the nation when it comes to empowering American democracy by updating some of our antiquated laws with regard to employers and voting.
Last year, I established a non-partisan organization called A Day for Democracy with the singular goal of encouraging CEOs and leaders of organizations to publicly pledge to help their employees exercise their right to vote. Our goal was simple – increase voter turnout. We began with a focus on Massachusetts-based employers and expanded to include many national and global employers that pledged support for the effort.
Since we launched over a year ago, leading up to the general election, over 400 CEOs have taken the pledge to support A Day for Democracy and encouraged and supported their employees’ voting rights by providing accommodations to facilitate their participation. Our effort affected more than 2 million employees in Massachusetts and beyond, and included large employers such as The Boston Globe, Putnam Investments, State Street Corporation, Harvard University, Staples, Coca-Cola, Bank of America, New Balance, Massachusetts Biotechnology Council, the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce, Major League Baseball, The Boston Red Sox, and many of Boston’s major law firms and hospitals.
We learned a lot from that experience – including the need to codify some much-needed reforms that will expand access to voting and help educate employers on their obligations. Let’s be clear, A Day for Democracy’s success shows that employers can be part of the solution when it comes to making it easier to vote. The effort continues because we want to hear their ideas and feedback, and A Day for Democracy gives them an opportunity to be a part of the discussion, to be part of the solution. What we learned through A Day for Democracy can be applied here in the Commonwealth.
The Massachusetts Legislature is currently debating two bills – H. 2011 and S. 1174 –that protect the current obligation of an employer to offer and support employees who use paid time off to vote, while modernizing the language to reflect the current workplace environment. For example, current law limits this right to time off to vote to employees in a “manufacturing, mechanical, or mercantile establishment.” These bills also create new sections to prohibit an employer from blocking or punishing a worker for voting, which is not included in current law.
Additionally, the legislation requires employers to post notice of the right to vote (as is stipulated for other employees’ workplace rights such as minimum wage and harassment protections), and a method of recourse for an employee who meets the obligations regarding notification to an employer and is subsequently not given time off to vote. These provisions are very important to the success of this law and to increasing voter engagement in future years. In our discussions with employers, it is clear that most are unaware that they are already required to give time off for voting. Requiring workplaces to post notifications about these rights will ensure that both employers and employees know the rules.
Of significant importance, the bills also have a “without loss of pay” provision. In other words, they require that an employer pay an employee for the time they spend voting during the time allowed for any election. This is a particularly important provision to discourage barriers to voting for low-income, hourly wage workers. A financial loss associated with the voting process will lead to many employees not exercising their Constitutional right to vote because many cannot afford to lose hourly wages.
Finally, the proposals also better reflect current voting practices. When the laws were first passed more than a hundred years ago, voting took place on one day in fixed polling locations. The proposed updates will allow employees to vote at any time during the voting period (in-person early voting, mail-in ballot voting, Election Day voting), which will allow for flexibility for both employers and employees. The bills also include a requirement that employees notify their employer of the intent to vote during working hours in advance, so that the workplace is not unduly impacted by their absence.
Massachusetts has always led the nation when it comes to developing, promoting, and protecting democracy. We know that employers can and must be part of the solution when it comes to updating our voting laws so that access to voting is expanded, not suppressed. The legislature should continue that tradition and pass these commonsense voting provisions soon.
Peter Palandjian is the chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Intercontinental Real Estate Corporation.