TIME OFF

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I don't think there's anyone who doesn't miss the standard school year vacation they enjoyed as a child. Every year for twelve years, if you're lucky, vacation is unstructured time to explore the creative depths of your mind and the joys of childhood without forced extra-curricular activities or stringent schedules to adhere to. For those dozen or so years, you have gotten as close as you may ever get to being "free." It is a joyous experience that you will try to replicate in some form or another, for the rest of your life as an adult. Because once you are catapulted into the adult work world, not only is time fleeting, but so are opportunities to take vacation. That is, time off from work, spent in relaxation that is personally fulfilling and professionally reenergizing.

I remember growing up in Corpus Christi, Texas – my childhood so ideal it never mattered that we seldom went outside the city for vacation. It was the time and the people we spent it with that was special. Work-hour weekdays were spent with our maternal Grandparents, surrounded by cousins and neighborhood kids to play with. My cousin and I would be outside nearly all day, among the sky-high bamboo forest, the peach, plum and orange trees, the varieties of tropical plants and wildflowers that fueled my imagination as a child and helped to form my love of plants as an adult. I'd help my Grandmother garden in the morning when it was cool, play outside until lunch, help with the dishes, then nap or siesta for thirty minutes to an hour, a cultural tradition I grew to love.

Weeknights and weekends with our parents, we'd visit the science and art museum, the beach, movies and library frequently. This taught us an appreciation of art, science, history and our natural surroundings – animals, land, water, sky, the community around us –taught uniquely by my artist/educator mother and professional engineer father. We learned to draw and paint, conceptualize new ideas, find beauty and interest anywhere, and that has stayed with me. I can find faces, shapes, even words in clouds, in carpets, in water-stained cement, anywhere. This abstract way of appreciating the world and being a part of the landscape, I got from time immersed with my family, especially during times of vacation.

Now that I am older, I realize that's where my creativity comes from and that is why my adage has always been "it's not where you are, but who you're with." Those summers were a gift, and I grew accustomed to them, only to have them end once I became an adult, as we all do. Lost was the bliss of vacation…the depth of unstructured time and a corresponding sense of being rested, the feeling of being free. These memories are heightened once you enter the work world, where you will be taught to carefully balance any "sick" and "personal" leave your employer gives you. You'll be reminded to be grateful, because some private employers give no leave whatsoever. You'll be encouraged to "cash in" leave you save in order to supplement your income. And you'll begin to miss time to think, time to read, being outdoors, time with family and friends. Everyone needs this time.

Yet those who struggle to make ends meet must balance any paid personal and/or sick leave they do have, often using it to take care of family members who are ill, as is common in my Latino heritage. I learned this in 2003, the year that Take Back Your Time: Fighting Overwork and Time Poverty in America was published. At the time, I was employed at a fast-paced, demoralizing call center, while taking graduate classes at night. My colleagues were among the lowest paid in the organization, making them susceptible to management practices that sometimes verged on abuse. The majority of my call-center colleagues were older Latinas, mostly single, divorced, or widowed and many were grandparents. These individuals had to fight to keep and earn the time they were entitled to, such as the routine "floating holidays" that were awarded based on merit.

As in all areas of social stratification, occupational status carried with it stated and unstated rules and regulations. For example, moderate to highly paid "normal" workers arrive at work at 8AM, then get coffee and chat with coworkers at a leisurely pace before beginning the day. They take restroom breaks as needed throughout the day and standard breaks when work permits. They are granted additional personal leave throughout the year without any issue.

Yet "call center" workers arrived before 8AM ready to take detailed calls, beverage in hand -- sipped strategically to minimize restroom breaks, as every minute taken was deducted from the total number of break minutes per day. Taking too much time in the restroom was akin to arriving late, leaving early, or "stealing company time" according to our supervisor. This had direct impact on being awarded or denied a floating holiday, which was available several times a year for "good behavior."

In turn, call-center workers paid with their health – complaining of burnout, stress and daily demoralization. Some developed urinary tract infections from waiting too long to use the restroom or even being denied permission to use the restroom during the busiest times of the day. And although the practice of deducting restroom minutes from total day break minutes was an incorrect labor practice, it, like most abuse of power, fell on the least advantaged and took years to remedy.

The women and men I worked with from 2003-2005 accurately represent 2012 Pew Research Data that shows that Latinos in the United States have the lowest median personal earnings and highest number of seniors over 65 living in poverty. Latinas also suffer from high rates of depression, which makes sense given these statistics. These are compassionate, kind, family-oriented workers that need time off. They need to catch their breath, be treated with dignity and respect and they must have time to immerse themselves once again in the joys of freedom, creativity and replenishing relaxation, while maintaining their cultural roles as family caregivers. They are the reason I support Take Back Your Time and they are my inspiration to fight to win paid vacation leave in the U.S.

Isa Fernandez, MPA, is a sociologist, public administrator and member of the Take Back Your Time Board. She lives and works in San Antonio, Texas