An ancient decision by astronomers-of-old to synchronise a 365-day calendar with the Earth’s orbit means that every four years we extend February by a day and call it a leap year.
But in 2024, February 29 doesn’t just fall on a weekday — it also lands amid cost of living pressures that are currently crippling Australians.
So, for those on a fixed annual salary, it’s easy to feel shortchanged — but that’s not exactly how it works.
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One netizen tweeted on January 1: “It’s a leap year, so if you get paid a fixed annual salary you are working an extra day for free in most places.”
While another said: “Leap year means my February salary has to last one more day, and I’m not too sure how I feel about that.”
But there are two things missing from that thinking.
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As Bankwest Curtin Economics Centre director Alan Duncan told 7NEWS.com.au: “People make the assumption that it is essentially gifting employers an extra working day during the leap year, relative to the salary that they would normally get.
“That presumes we’re paid on a daily basis. It also presumes the days of the week that pan out during a leap year.
“Neither of those two presumptions are certain.”
The average full-time adult worker in Australia earns about $367 a day, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics.
Which means during a leap year “a very back-of-the-envelope calculation might suggest an extra half-a-billion dollars is donated on average to employers — but it doesn’t work that way,” Duncan said.
While it’s tempting to divide our fixed salaries into daily earnings — or even extrapolate on the value of work, or dwell on hypothetical cash in the bank — the signatures at the bottom of our employment contracts render the exercise superfluous.
Unlike wages, salaries are not calculated by the hours worked each week.
“Salaries and wages can support different work structures, which means there are advantages and disadvantages to both,” according to Indeed.
“A potential disadvantage of salaried pay is the likelihood of working overtime. Salary employees are typically responsible for meeting deadlines and finishing their tasks when required.
“An advantage of an hourly or daily wage is that employees receive pay for their true work hours. This means their pay is more accurate.”
‘Asymmetry in the argument’
This year, one thing is certain, there are more working days than usual. If you consider the weekdays as working days, 2024 has 262 of them.
But it’s not just the fault of February 29 — shifting weekends also have an impact.
“The one thing that is true is that you’re more likely to have more working days in a leap year but, due to shifting weekends, it’s not guaranteed,” Duncan said.
There were only 260 working days in 2022 and 2023, and next year there will be 261.
“Does that mean we should have been paid less in 2022?” Duncan said.
“During the next leap year, in 2028, there will be 260 working days … compared with 261 in the prior and subsequent years.
“There’s a bit of asymmetry in the argument.”
There is, however, a potential plus side to the leap year — the chance for additional pay cycles to sneak their way into the calendar.
Depending on the day employees are paid, they could actually end up with more cash than usual on a leap year.
“On a leap year, you’ve got a slightly greater chance of receiving 27 fortnightly payments, than 26 which is the norm,” Duncan said.
“Typically, I don’t think employers would make adjustments for that, I think they would just continue to pay fortnightly and what they pay each fortnight.”
Inventing the leap year
Why do we even need to have a leap year? Well, the Earth takes exactly 24 hours to rotate on its axis — making up a day — but it needs 365.24 days to completely orbit the Sun, which is just a smidgen longer than a 365-day calendar can accommodate for.
And while several hours each calendar year might not seem like much, they added up to create a noticeable misalignment between the calendar months and seasonal changes in ancient times before the leap year was invented.
The leap year was introduced in 45BC by the Roman emperor Julius Caesar, when his scientific advisers noticed the seasons were out of whack, according to Macquarie University Department of Physics and Astronomy researcher and adjunct fellow Dr Stuart Ryder.
But when determining the leap year equation, Ceasar’s advisers rounded up that 0.24 of a day to a full quarter — the consequences of which would go unnoticed for centuries.
Advisers to Pope Gregory XIII eventually realised, in 1582, that 10 days needed to be scrapped from the calendar to bring it back into alignment, and October 5 to 14, 1582, were officially erased.
Pope Gregory XIII also enhanced the mathematical equation to include additional leap years on century years divisible by 400 — for example, 1900 was not a leap year, but 2000 was — which still remains to this day.