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The line to vote at City Hall was up to a three-hour wait on Oct. 27, the last day to vote early in-person in Pennsylvania. Credit: Sage Levine

While peer institutions will provide employees paid time to vote or suspend operations altogether on Election Day, Penn will do neither to make voting more accessible for its employees. A petition demanding that the University provide paid time off for its employees on Election Day has garnered more than 7,300 signatures.

Penn has repeatedly declined student and faculty pleas to give the community Election Day off, citing Pennsylvania state regulations about the number of days off allowed. The petition, created by College seniors Emma Harris and Alisa Wadsworth last month, calls on Penn to join many of its peers to set aside voting hours for its 41,000 employees, particularly non-academic employees who cannot afford to step away from work to vote. 

"As Election Day provides an opportunity for each and every citizen to practice their civic duty, it is up to Penn not only as a leading global institution but the largest private employer in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania’s most populous city, to uphold voting rights by providing paid time off, across all departments, for every staff member," the petition reads.

University spokesperson Stephen MacCarthy did not respond to a request for comment.

Penn's employee count is just 3,000 fewer than the 44,000-vote margin of victory that decided Pennsylvania in the 2016 presidential election. Penn is also the largest employer in the city of Philadelphia, making it especially crucial that Penn provide paid time off for its faculty and staff, Harris said.

Harris added that while some departments at Penn are providing staff with paid time off to vote, the lack of a centralized decision from administration leaves staff in some departments without the same options. Harris said she spoke with a building supervisor in the Graduate School of Education whose boss is providing him two hours off to vote, but the same cannot be said across all other schools and departments. 

In an email to the Penn community on Oct. 20, University officials encouraged supervisors to be flexible and allow time for staff to vote. Harris and Wadsworth wrote in the petition that mere guidelines are insufficient to protecting employees' rights to vote.

"In our everyday lives, laws and regulations, not guidelines, are created to protect our most sacred rights," the petition reads. "Our fundamental right to vote should be protected. This conviction reflects Penn’s commitment to civic engagement — now, we call on the institution to translate its values into action.

Paid time off to vote is especially important this year, Harris said, as distrust in mail-in voting may lead to long lines at polling places on Election Day. The current civil unrest and National Guard presence in Philadelphia prompted by the police killing of Walter Wallace Jr. last week has also heightened people's anxiety levels at the eve of Election Day, she said.

“Right now there's so many barriers. There are the long lines; there's COVID; there's just the general stresses of everyday life; there's social unrest, and we should not be adding to that as an institution another barrier on top of that,” Harris said.

If Penn were to provide employees paid time off to vote, it would join a large subset of schools that are taking steps to ensure its faculty and staff can vote on Nov. 3. Vanderbilt University, Cornell University, and Stanford University are providing its employees paid time off to vote early or on Election Day. Drexel University will close at 2 p.m. on Election Day to allow faculty and staff to vote. Brown University and Columbia University have suspended operations altogether on Nov. 3.

The demand for Penn to make voting accessible for staff has also been taken up by Penn alumni, who are calling on their alma mater to provide employees paid time off to vote.

1988 College and Wharton graduate and Obamacare guru Andy Slavitt, who served as the acting administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services from 2015 to 2017, took to Twitter to share the petition.

"4,000 votes makes the difference. This is 40,000 people. Sign the petition to get that to change," he tweeted.

2012 Wharton and College graduate and 2019 Wharton MBA graduate Jibran Khan said in order to live up to its words about civic engagement, Penn must make voting more accessible for its employees. Khan added that this is particularly important during an election in which it is unprecedentedly difficult to vote due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We are a school founded by Benjamin Franklin, Benjamin Franklin being one of the original civic leaders of our country,” Khan said. “It's important that we continue that tradition of civic leadership through making it as seamless as possible for all Penn employees to be able to vote.”

The University has named the 2020-2021 school year the Year of Civic Engagement, encouraging the Penn community to engage in community service and civic engagement work, particularly in West Philadelphia.

2013 Wharton and College graduate Jon Youshaei said that Penn has an obligation to see that its employees are able to exercise their right to vote. He added that if Penn were to take leadership in this area, it would set a good example and possibly be a step towards making Election Day a federal holiday.

“Penn, with all the responsibility, the history, and tradition that it has, should be sending that signal the strongest,” Youshaei said.

2006 College graduate and 2011 Penn Law graduate Pierre Gooding said that one of the primary barriers that keeps young people and service workers from voting is a job or academic schedule that makes taking time to vote difficult, particularly when voting means waiting in long lines. 

“I'm shocked that the University would have this policy, because it is so crystal clear what the impact is,” he said.

Gooding added that providing employees paid time off is an opportunity for Penn, as a large employer and a top institution of higher education, to set an example for other workplaces and universities.

“When the University is apologizing in a couple of months for this terrible policy, we’ll look back and see it was an injustice, but let's do something now,” Gooding said. “Let's fix it on the front end and be a part of the solution instead of the problem.”