floater

In the NYT Sunday Review on the 7th, a “Room for Debate” feature on “Why Don’t Americans Take Vacation?”, with commentators weighing in on the topic. It’s a pretty dire discussion, emphasizing how (with the destruction of the clout of labor unions in the US) a great many workers have very few, if any, benefits; family-friendly company practices and benefits are especially meager. In particular, there are vacations. From John de Graaf, answering the question in the main title: “Many Feel Trapped by Work”:

Vacations in the U.S. are among the shortest in the world, and a quarter of American workers get no paid vacation leave at all. Then, to add insult to injury, surveys find that 40 percent of us leave vacation days unused – three to seven days on average. Why do we do it?

de Graaf gives three contributing reasons, two of which have to do with company failures to cover for employees on vacation.

My early work experience included some time on a newspaper that published weekdays and Sundays — a context in which employees couldn’t just take off on vacation, since the paper had to get out, every day of the week, with current news. Things were managed in several ways, like staggered vacations, but one part of the system was the use of a “floater” (that would be me) who would fill in wherever hands were needed.

From de Graaf, with two crucial portions boldfaced:

First, there is fear [of jeopardizing their jobs] …

Secondly, many workers tell me time off just isn’t worth it. Sure, vacations are fun, but so much work piles up at the office while they are gone, they are already stressing about the upcoming load before their vacations have ended. Yes, they were stressed before they left, but now the feeling has doubled. No one has been assigned to replace them while they are gone. By contrast, Europeans cross-train employees so they can pick up for each other during holidays. [That was the scheme on the paper, for certain positions, in particular the editorial writers.]

Finally, some employers won’t even let workers take the time they are owed. In Jacksonville, Fla., a hotel clerk told me her vacation had been cancelled for seven years in a row because the company had no one to replace her. When I asked how they could do that given her contract, she said they simply paid her extra. She needed the time even more than the money, she said. But the choice was not hers. [Infuriating: contract be damned, take the money or get fired.]

From a 2012 posting of mine:

When I worked at the [Reading PA] Eagle (1958-61), I mostly worked as a “floater”, taking whatever position needed to be filled that week, which meant I got to do pretty much everything. My two favorite assignments were feature stories (which eventually got me an offer of a position as assistant Sunday editor, to move up to the editorship eventually — but I went to graduate school in linguistics instead) and headline writing, which was an exercise in problem-solving.

And then there’s Calvin Trillin, author of the 1980 comic novel Floater:

[review by Amazon customer W. C. Hall] “Floater” is the writing job at a fictional news magazine held by the book’s central character Fred Becker. (It’s also a job Trillin once held in his pre-New Yorker days.) A “floater” does not have a permanent assignment, but moves from one section of the magazine to another as illness or other reason creates a temporary need.

Not quite the same job as mine, but similar.

On the lexical item floater, from NOAD2, with the relevant sense boldfaced:

1 a person or thing that floats, in particular:

  • a worker who is required to do a variety of tasks as the need for each arises
  • informal  a person who frequently changes occupation or residence
  • a loose particle within the eyeball that is apparent in one’s field of vision

2 an insurance policy covering loss of articles without specifying a location

For completeness, here are two more slang senses, from The Dictionary of American Slang, 4th ed., by Barbara Ann Kipfer & Robert L. Chapman:

A slow pitch that appears to float in the air (1906+ Baseball)

A corpse taken from the water (1852+)

The letter sense will be familiar to readers who watch crime series on television.

One Response to “floater”

  1. Joseph F Foster Says:

    Is it possible that Americans don’t “take vacation” because that’s not American English? Americans take vacations , or don’t. They take a vacation, or don’t. But that NYT headline leapt out at me and I assumed it was either “headlinese” or written by an Englishman.

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