Glendale, Calif.—Like thousands of Bay Area residents, software engineer Risha Mars skipped work on International Women’s Day to rally for women’s issues on the steps of San Francisco’s City Hall.
Unlike many of her fellow protesters, Ms. Mars didn’t need to worry about taking off on a Wednesday afternoon; she was on paid leave.
“I didn’t feel pressured or guilty for leaving work,” she recalls. “I felt very lucky to be able to do that.”
About a month before the protest, Mars’s company – a San Francisco startup called Buoyant – joined a handful of others in announcing that it would provide additional paid time off for employees to participate in civic activities. The idea, says Buoyant chief executive William Morgan, is to support democracy by encouraging workers to take the time they need, including office hours, to engage in politics, volunteer work, and civic service.
“It’s a recognition of the fact that civic engagement is something that we should be doing not just as individuals but as a company,” he says. “I wanted to make it more clear that we could not be passive citizens in this world.”
The policy is drawing renewed attention in the wake of Facebook’s announcement that it would give its employees paid time off on May 1 to join nationwide protests against President Trump’s immigration policies. Critics say the policy could be construed as another way for left-leaning Silicon Valley to push an anti-conservative agenda. At a time of heightened political partisanship, they say, such a move could be detrimental to efforts to bridge the yawning gap between the political right and left.
But there’s also a sense among some that in such a polarized environment, any attempt to improve civic participation could strengthen democracy and should be celebrated.
“There’s nothing wrong – from a political, civic, and legal perspective – with facilitating citizens’ pursuit of their civic duty, as long as the company isn’t advocating how employees use that time,” says Justin Gest, assistant professor of public policy at George Mason University in Washington.
“In many places … civic engagement comes from people who have the leisure of time, money, and resources [to participate],” he adds. “To provide dedicated time for civic engagement levels the playing field.”
Silicon Valley has made no secret of its opposition to parts of Trump’s agenda.
In January, Google executives spoke at a rally against the president’s order that banned people from seven majority-Muslim countries from entering the US. The company was among more than 120 others – including Facebook and Apple – to oppose the order. In February, Politico reported that a coalition of executives, activists, and engineers from across the Valley had teamed up to provide support to progressive candidates.
The spirit of activism is unusual for an industry that has traditionally held progressive views but avoided engaging in politics, says Alec Levenson, senior research scientist at the University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business. This new advocacy, he says, aligns with two things: the coming-of-age of the Millennial generation, a cohort that values meaningful work and social consciousness; and Trump taking office.
“The amount of activism in Silicon Valley is breaking with historical norm,” Professor Levenson says. The civic engagement policy, he and others agree, is a step in the same direction. Where perspectives diverge is on the implications of this emerging activism.
‘A chilling effect’
To Matthew Del Carlo, chair of the California Young Republican Federation, businesses have the right to shape their vacation policies however they want – whether that means giving employees time off to pursue their hobbies, take a trip, or rally for a cause.
The trouble, he says, comes when companies begin to suggest the kinds of causes their workers can and should support – something that Facebook appears to be doing by choosing May 1 as the day to support their employees’ civic engagement.
“Would this have been permitted if people had wanted to protest against Obamacare?” says Del Carlo. “Will tech companies allow conservative thought and conservative protests to occur? [If not], it could have a really chilling effect on having a diverse environment.”
Others say the civic engagement policy smacks of liberal elitism.
“It suggests that, ‘Well, people have to work so they can’t be active in democracy.’ But the rest of us are working as well, and we don’t get paid to do it,” says Erik Fogg, co-author of “Wedged: How You Became a Tool of the Partisan Political Establishment, and How to Start Thinking for Yourself Again.” He believes either everyone should get paid time off or no one should.
“There’s a sense that it’s a benefit given to people who need it less than everyone else,” he adds.
But Levenson, the USC researcher, notes that governments in other developed nations already have policies that promote civic participation – like making election day a national holiday. It just so happens that Silicon Valley leans left, and so the causes its employees support are likely to be in the same vein, he says.
“Were the energy industry or military industrial complex to provide the same kind of civic leaves, the advocacy would lean elsewhere. And they are not inhibited from doing so,” Levenson says.
“The way democracy is envisioned, civic engagement is not a luxury but a duty,” he adds. “This policy is a privatization of what other countries are doing nationally.”
‘Peace of mind’
The firms behind the new policy – which gives employees additional paid leave equal to the amount they already provide for vacation – say it’s not about advocating one agenda over another.
“We’re providing [our employees] a platform and opportunity – without professional consequences – to participate and express themselves in whatever way is going to make the most meaningful impact,” says Amna Pervez, director of recruiting at Fauna, the San Francisco software startup that first came up with the policy.
She distinguishes their approach from one that focuses a particular day to extend paid leave to its employees, as Facebook has done.
“It’s up to employees how” – and when – “they wish to exercise this,” Ms. Pervez says. “We trust them.”
Chris Anderson, who works remotely as Fauna’s director of developer experience, used the time the new policy afforded to complete a project he had spent two years working on: a “play street” for his neighborhood in Portland, Ore.
“Portland has a legacy of a bunch of roads that never got paved and are randomly spattered throughout the city,” he says. Mr. Anderson helped renovate one of those streets into a safe place for both kids and adults in his community. In April, he took several days to supervise the installation and spread the word about the project.
His company’s policy, Anderson says, “gave me peace of mind. I don’t have to second-guess myself. You feel free not to constrain your creativity just because it’s work hours.”
“I had not gone out of work for political reasons before. It felt good,” adds Mars at Buoyant. “[The policy] removes some of the mental barriers to being engaged.”