La Colombe and other companies want to help their employees vote on Election Day
Many people are concerned that we could lose our democracy if we don't vote, said a Wharton professor.
Before Philly-based La Colombe had about 650 employees spread over five cities, CEO Todd Carmichael said he could just walk into his cafe and tell the handful of workers to go vote while he manned the counter.
It has to be more organized now, he said, but the emphasis on encouraging employees to vote has remained consistent since Carmichael cofounded the company in 1994. He instructs managers to make sure workers take the time they need to vote. If a manager does not follow these directives and employees don't believe they can vote, Carmichael said, they can email him directly.
"Voting day, it's the greatest day to be late," he said. "It's the day you should be late to work."
La Colombe's top java maven is joining the CEOs of more than 350 companies in "Time to Vote," which bills itself as a "nonpartisan, business-led effort [that] aims to increase voter participation on Election Day."
The campaign, announced in September, includes leaders of a diverse set of companies, including many with workers in the Philadelphia area, such as Walmart, the Gap, Dick's Sporting Goods, Nordstrom, PayPal, and Southwest Airlines. The initiative cites low voter-participation rates in the United States and describes how work frustrates many voters. Lyft, which is part of the campaign, is providing free and discounted rides to the polls, its president, John Zimmer, said.
This is hardly the only campaign around. ElectionDay.org has a petition to make election days a company holiday. The website notes that nearly 60 percent of voting-eligible Americans failed to vote in the last midterm, and 35 percent of nonvoters cited scheduling conflicts with work or school as impediments.
The effort has garnered pledges from more than 280 companies in retail, computer software, advertising, financial services, health care, and venture capital.
"The enthusiasm from our corporate partners is exceptional for a midterm election," Mike Ward of TurboVote, a nonpartisan voter-turnout initiative from such brands as Amazon, Facebook, and Google, told the Washington Post. "If you had asked me in March 2016 what we expected to be happening in October of 2018, I would have expected way, way less."
This year, 44 percent of U.S. firms are giving workers paid time off to vote in the upcoming midterm, up slightly from 42 percent in 2017, the Society for Human Resource Management found. It also documented a decline in companies offering unpaid time off to vote, beyond what the law requires, to 29 percent from 33 percent in 2017.
In Pennsylvania, there are no laws requiring companies to give employees time off to vote, according to Workplace Fairness, which tracks state laws on voting rights.
"The way this country is organized, it makes it hard for people to always vote, so we wanted to create an environment where we can overcome those difficulties," Carmichael said. "I want to make sure … that La Colombe is part of the solution."
Carmichael wants it to become a standard that "all businesses, from big box stores to small cafes," give employees the right to vote.
Companies should make Election Day a national holiday, given that workers are expected to be distracted at work while following polling numbers, the outplacement consultant firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas concluded. This productivity loss could cost employers several billion dollars collectively, the firm said.
Patagonia, a retailer of outdoor clothing and gear, closed its stores on Election Day 2016 and announced it will do the same for the midterms. It is also part of the Time to Vote campaign. "The threats to democracy have never been more real than they are right now," the company's website says.
The Committee of Seventy, a Philadelphia nonprofit, nonpartisan advocacy group, recently launched an app called WeVote, which informs users about the candidates, voting rights, and anything else they need to know on Election Day, said CEO David Thornburgh. In about 10 days, the committee has attracted about 40 Philly groups, including companies, nonprofits, and campaigns, and 400 users.
Encouraging voting "is going to continue to seep into the corporate consciousness," Thornburgh said. "This is something the millennial employees care about, and they will be attracted to companies that share that interest and commitment."
Jen Devor, director of partnerships at Campus Philly and candidate for Philadelphia City Commissioner, helped create the WeVote app. A push to get out the vote shows future employees that "the company is making an effort to engage with the civically minded culture," she said.
One of the top three factors when young professionals, ages 25 to 39, in this region considered a new employer was company culture, according to a Chamber of Commerce for Greater Philadelphia survey in 2017. More than 75 percent of respondents were involved in public service or interested in getting involved.
Over at Comcast's Philadelphia office, the intranet message board includes a reminder that Election Day is coming and has a link to a voter registration website, said company spokesperson John Demming. The company does this for every election cycle and encourages employees to vote before and after work hours.
ShopRunner, which has its "founding office" in Conshohocken, is reminding employees that voting on Election Day should be a priority, even if they need to come in to work late or leave early, said Lindsay Verstegen, the company's senior vice president of people.
"Especially in tech and just any segment of business that's moving very fast, it's very easy to get caught up in things," Verstegen said. So it's important "to remind people that your right to vote is one of your greatest powers as a citizen in this country, so please go do that."
Eric Orts, a business ethics professor at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School, said employers encouraging voting is a movement that is "building." Yet while big firms commit to national campaigns, Orts said it is important to see whether smaller firms are also offering this benefit.
"If you're asking what's the social cause, then we can't ignore the elephant, so to speak, in the room," Orts said, referring to President Trump. "Businesses have been involved in politics, usually behind the scenes having PACs support their candidates. … Right now it's a little different. A concern many people have is that we could lose our democracy if we don't get more people out to vote this time around."
Haverford-based NouSoma Communications has four employees, and its president, Ellen Langas, said the women-owned company includes a provision in the employees' annual work plan to allow up to two hours paid time off to get to the polls.
"Women can really effect change," she said, noting the surge in women running for public office. She views Election Day as similar to other major holidays observed in corporate America. "Voting allows us to exercise our choice about those who are going to represent us and ultimately shape our lives … and I take that very seriously and I think our employees do, too."