NEW YORK — A record 44 percent of U.S. firms will give workers paid time off to vote Nov. 6, up from 37 percent in 2016, according to reports from the Society for Human Resources Management.
Millions of workers could be covered by such policies, and if they facilitate voting among people who otherwise wouldn't, it could affect the outcome of contested races for the House and Senate — potentially even determine which party controls both chambers — as well as governor's races in numerous states.
More than 400 companies have also signed on to efforts with ElectionDay.org and Time to Vote to boost voter turnout in a variety of ways. That doesn't necessarily mean shutting down or officially giving workers time off. Some firms, like Lyft Inc., have instituted "no meetings" policies or provided on-site voter registration.
Among them is restaurant chain Cava, which has 1,800 employees spread across 68 locations in 10 states. For the first time, the company's workers will get two hours of paid leave at the beginning or end of their shifts to vote.
"When I was a waiter for 10 to 12 years, I never had time to get out there and vote," Cava co-founder Ted Xenohristos said. "We took this step so they could be more active members in our community. We just want to give them the opportunity to vote."
The U.S. lags well behind most other industrialized nations in election turnout. About 60 percent of eligible voters cast ballots in the 2016 presidential election, according to data from the United States Elections Project. In midterm elections, like this year, turnout rates are historically even lower. In 2014, about 36 percent of eligible voters participated, according the organization's figures.
Business leaders say they can help, and hundreds have come together this election cycle to do so, often as part of broader corporate social responsibility strategies. "This is a more neutral way for them to engage, in that this is non-partisan," said Marick Masters, Wayne State University professor of business who researches business and labor political action.
This year, however, even the very act of voting has taken on a political valence. As a general rule, the larger and more diverse the electorate, the better Democrats tend to do, one reason voter turnout has become such a central part of hotly contested races in Georgia, North Dakota and elsewhere.
Unions have also played a role in registering voters and making sure they have time to vote. Workers at Ford, General Motors and Chrysler, which are members of the United Auto Workers, have had this provision in their contracts since the 1990s.
Schools close down in Michigan on that day, so teachers can vote, even though Michigan is a state that doesn't require employers to give their workers any time off.
"This is essentially saying look we want to make this as easy as possible," said Harley Shaiken, a labor historian at the University of California, Berkeley. "The difficulty should be in making your decision."