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Patagonia, Lyft, Walmart among hundreds of companies giving workers time off to vote in the 2020 election

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A person casts their ballot at Madison Square Garden polling station on November 1, 2020 in New York City.
David Dee Delgado | Getty Images

More than 94 million voters nationwide have already cast their ballots in the 2020 general election, according to estimates from the U.S. Elections Project, and millions more will head to their polling place on Nov. 3 to exercise their right to vote.

These numbers indicate what are likely to be record numbers for voter turnout, an area where the U.S. generally lags far behind other countries. Roughly 56% of the U.S. voting-age population voted in the 2016 presidential election, according to Pew Research Center, compared with 87% of voting-age Belgians who took part in their nationwide election in 2014.

But one group hoping to increase these numbers on Election Day, when some 33% of voters said they planned to cast their ballots, is company CEOs.

This year, more than 1,850 companies joined the nonpartisan Time to Vote coalition to encourage workers to cast their ballots in the 2020 U.S. presidential election. In doing so, company leaders pledge to encourage workers to vote, including by giving employees paid time off on Election Day, providing information about early voting or vote-by-mail options, or making Nov. 3 a day without meetings.

Many registered voters cited a lack of interest or a conflicting schedule as reasons why they didn't participate in the 2016 presidential election. But by providing time off to vote during the workday, business leaders hope to encourage workers to cast their ballots safely without having to forgo paid hours.

Such time-off policies could also help hourly workers who may work non-traditional shift schedules, as well as parents who would otherwise need to coordinate before- or after-work child care while they visited their polling place.

How companies give time off to vote varies

A spokesperson for Levi Strauss & Co., a Time to Vote founding member, tells CNBC Make It that the requirements of the pledge are designed to be flexible.

"Member companies have implemented this initiative in different ways, whether it's paid or unpaid time off, or simply a no-meeting day so employees have a more flexible schedule," the spokesperson says, adding that Levi will offer five hours of paid time off to both corporate and retail employees on Election Day.

For example, all associates who work at Walmart, the largest private employer in the U.S. with 1.5 million workers, are provided three paid hours to vote during the day if their scheduled shift doesn't otherwise allow them to leave while polls are open. Workers are notified of their eligibility via the company's intranet, according to a company spokesperson, and they're required to give their supervisor one day's notice about their need to leave.

Outdoor equipment retailer Patagonia completely closed its headquarters, distribution center, and stores nationwide for the general elections in 2016 and 2018, and it will continue the practice in 2020. Employees are paid for these full days off.

Some employers are providing paid time off to volunteer for election-related efforts, as well. Employees at PayPal will be given up to four hours of paid time off on Nov. 3 to vote or "participate in civic engagement in a way that is meaningful to them, such as volunteering virtually or at their local polling station," according to a company statement.

Enabling more people to vote during the day could also ease polling place congestion, of particular concern during the coronavirus pandemic, which is often at its worst in the morning and after work hours. Polling places generally open at 6 a.m.; in the 2016 election, polls closed as early as 6 p.m. and as late as 9 p.m. local time.

Bringing politics into the workplace

Although some participants have been linked to political causes, Time to Vote organizers stress theirs is a nonpartisan effort to increase voter turnout overall. The focus on voter participation comes at a time when political division has created highly contentious environments, including in the workplace.

A 2019 survey from the Society for Human Resource Management found that 42% of U.S. employees say they have personally experienced, and 44% say they have witnessed, political disagreements at work.

"Companies can't, and shouldn't try to, quash these conversations because — contrary to popular belief — they're already happening," said SHRM president and CEO Johnny Taylor in a statement. "But what they can do is create inclusive cultures of civility where difference isn't a disruption."

Other organizations are using the initiative to increase voter participation beyond their workforce to their customer base, as well. For the 2018 midterms, Gap Inc. hosted workplace voter registration drives and provided employees with information to help them register and get to the polls. It also tapped its customer email list to send out voter registration reminders and information to promote voter participation.

Ride-share company Lyft, another Time to Vote member, is expanding its previous efforts and provided voters with free and discounted rides to the polls throughout the entire primary calendar and will continue to do so until Nov. 3.

So far, participating organizations represent more than 6 million workers across all 50 states. Time to Vote surpassed its goal to have 1,000 organizations on its roster by Election Day. The initiative launched in the summer of 2018 ahead of the midterm elections and received commitments from 411 companies representing all 50 states. There is no cost to join the pledge.

What happens if you don't work for one of these companies

Some states require that employers allow workers time off to vote, though the time can be paid or unpaid, and time restrictions vary.

"What's recommended is that organizations allow up to two hours of paid time off so individuals can engage in their right to vote," SHRM chief knowledge officer Alex Alonso tells CNBC Make It. Those required by law to provide workers time off are also required to inform workers of these policies, whether it's by featuring labor law posters in the workplace, including it in the employee handbook, or having HR professionals send out internal communications reminders about their eligibility to take time off.

For workers unsure about their eligibility, Alonso recommends they visit their state's Department of Labor website for more information.

He adds that such policies adopted at the company-wide level can help employers promote inclusive and avoid political affiliation bias.

"It's important for workplaces and organizations to engage in this process," Alonso says.

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