Lieberman reminds us that time off is good public policy

Most of the buzz about a possible Vice President Joseph Lieberman has been this: Can he make his observance of the Sabbath accommodate the needs of public policy? But for American society just now, the deeper question may be: Can we make public policy accommodate itself to the wisdom of the Sabbath?

No, I do not mean reinstating the blue laws that used to force most stores to shut down on Sunday. Nor do I mean putting into law the traditional Jewish regimen — no cooking, no driving, no buying or selling, no working, no carrying packages in public spaces; but rather, singing, dancing, studying the Bible, talking about our values, visiting neighbors, taking long naps, making love.

Not a bad regimen — think of the road rage not produced, the gasoline not consumed, the gentleness encouraged.

But not a binding law.

What then, can we learn from the Sabbath in terms of public policy?

As Sen. Lieberman was being named, tens of thousands of Verizon workers were on strike. The New York Times quoted Patricia Egan, who works in a Verizon facility in Queens, answering questions from residential customers:

"We generally work from 8 in the morning until 4, but often we're forced to work until 8 at night. It wreaks havoc. People go to school and they're forced to miss classes. Many workers are single parents, and this forced overtime is a nightmare. It creates serious problems for their child-care arrangements."

The Times explained:

"At many call centers, customer service representatives who take orders for new service or answer questions about bills say they are inundated with calls, and that management often requires them to tack four extra hours onto their shifts. [They] would like the union and company to agree on measures to reduce stress and forced overtime."

At a Bell Atlantic/Verizon plant in Massachusetts, workers told a support picket line from Jobs with Justice that the plant's work force had been downsized so that half the number of workers had to answer a rising tide of customer phone calls.

So customers were left to hang on hold, and workers increasingly were put on "red alert" when the number of calls on hold got too high. "Red alert" meant workers were forbidden to leave their desks, to shmooze, stretch or use the bathroom. They said they were constantly exhausted.

Studies like Juliet Schor's "The Overworked Americans" have shown that most Americans work longer hours now than they did 30 years ago. And under more stress, too.

When Gore's spokesman Chris Lehane was asked if there was concern about Sen. Lieberman's availability to campaign, he answered: "We are going to be very, very respectful of his religion…Having a day off is probably a good thing for all of us."

Or maybe seven minutes at work every morning and every afternoon to sit quietly and just breathe, with the phones and computers off. Or maybe a few hours a week of paid family leave time, and a few hours a week paid leave to help out with neighborhood community service. And strict limits on compulsory overtime.

The wisdom of the Sabbath, a little at a time. Free time, if we hope to free people. A living wage with livable hours.

How about it, Mr. Vice President-in-waiting?