Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

Vacation: What Little We Have, We Can't Take

August 12th, 2003 | Paula Brantner

It’s the time of year when people around the world (and President Bush) are taking vacation…those who have it and are allowed to take it, that is. The United States lags most industrialized around the world in that vacation is not a legally mandated requirement, and now a number of reports suggest that even those Americans who do get vacation time are reluctant to use it this summer, with increased workloads making it difficult to get away, and the specter of layoffs and cutbacks making workers think twice about being away for extended periods of time. And even those who do get away may not be fully relaxing, as increased technology makes it possible for almost everyone to work from anywhere via phone, fax, or e-mail.

It surprises some workers to learn that in the United States, employers are not legally required to give their employees any vacation time off, at all. (See Dept. of Labor Advisory: Vacation Leave). This stands in sharp contrast to countries throughout Europe, where vacation time is required by law to be offered, and long summer vacations are legendary. The countries of Sweden, Austria and Denmark lead the way, with 25 days required by law, and the average amount of vacation taken even higher: up to 35 days in Sweden. Even in Japan, known its strong work ethic, employees have a legal right to 10 days off and take an average of almost 18 vacation days a year. (See ABC News article.) Only one other country in the industrialized world, Mexico, with fewer vacation days than America? (See The Nation article.)

Great Britain, whose citizens only get a mere 20 days off by law, is currently being pressured by other European Union countries to increase the number of vacation days it legally requires, because it is believed that longer hours give British companies an unfair competitive advantage. (See Bloomberg News article.) Germany, however, may be moving in the opposite direction. Due to the country’s economic stagnation, some economists and politicians have suggested reducing the amount of vacation time and official holidays, in order to spur economic growth. Germans currently receive 25 days of vacation by law, but many collective bargaining agreements require 30 or 32 days per year, coupled with 10 official holidays and some regional religious holidays. However, change will have to come slowly, due to union contracts and national tradition. (See AP article.)

Even though the expansive vacation guarantees that European citizens are used to are not part of U.S. law, many if not most workers are allowed some vacation time, whether pursuant to employer policy or union contract. The average vacation time given to workers in the United States who have worked three years for their employer is 10.2 days, or a little over 2 weeks of full-time vacation pay. Keep in mind, however, that it’s becoming less and less likely that someone will be with the same employer for three years, which often means starting all over again to accumulate any vacation time when starting a new position. But even those who have vacation time may feel some hesitancy about taking it this summer.

A recent survey of executives, who are more likely than most to have longer amounts of vacation time (and often the disposable income to make it possible to take long international vacations), showed that many are foregoing their vacations this year. Nearly half of 730 executives said they would not use all of the vacation time they were entitled to this year, according to Cleveland-based search and recruitment firm Management Recruiters International (MRI). Of those executives, 58 percent said their workloads were responsible for the decision. (See ABC News article.) Even those workers not at the executive level are cutting back on vacations this year. In a June poll conducted by Harris Interactive, 51 percent of Americans did not think they would take a summer vacation, while an additional 7 percent had delayed plans. (See Baltimore Sun article.)

Part of the reason is economic: those who have jobs are hesitant to leave the office for long periods of time lest they be perceived as slacking off — and expendable. As Lonnie Golden, associate professor of economics at Penn State University in Abington, Pa., remarks: “That’s part of the American workplace culture, devotion as demonstrated through longer days and longer years. When times are good they think it lends itself to promotion, when times are bad they think it gives them security.” (See ABC News article.) However, as Northeastern University labor economist Barry Bluestone points out, “We always had the Protestant work ethic. Are we more Protestant than last year? I don’t think so.” (See Ellen Goodman column.)

With already lean staffs, workers may also be feeling pressure from their employers to stay on the job, or to delay their vacations past the popular summer months. As one hospital administrator noted, “The patients don’t go on vacation in August,” which means that some employees at her hospital have had to postpone taking time off to provide patients with necessary care. (See USA Today article.)

For those lucky enough to get away on vacation, they may still be as close as a phone call or internet connection to life at the office. The term “working vacation” has become ubiquitous in our culture, embodied by our president, who mixes life at his ranch in Crawford, Texas with political fundraisers and short trips to nearby states. (See

Christian Science Monitor article.) According to a recent survey by the American Management Association, forty-four percent of managers are now required to provide their offices with their vacation itineraries or contact phone numbers, up slightly from 40% in 2002. An estimated 83 percent of vacationers now check in at the office while away, if only to prevent the inevitable crush of work upon returning. (See Ellen Goodman column.) Workers who don’t check in have to fear the inevitable “postponement,” as Lonnie Golden calls it. “You’re working like a dog before it, then when you come home [work] is all stocked up.”

What is the solution? According to Joe Robinson, author of “Work to Live: The Guide to Getting a Life,” we need a law providing three weeks of vacation for any U.S. worker who has worked at a job for one year, and four weeks after three years. As Robinson remarks,

When millions of hard-working Americans are afraid to take their vacations for fear they will be replaced or bypassed for promotions if they do so, we have to have the protective recourse of a law. When the volatile economy forces workers in their forties and fifties to start their paid-leave banks over again at one or two weeks when they join a new company, as if they were at their very first job, it’s not too much to insist from the political leaders that we empower that they make every effort to right this ridiculous state of affairs. Having to constantly prove ourselves worthy of vacation time till the day we retire is an insult to the efforts beyond the call of duty that working Americans put in every day to keep this country’s economy growing.

Robinson has started a grassroots campaign to push for this change in the law, and has gathered 50,000 signatures for the campaign so far. We think he’s on the right track. Because as Katrina vanden Heuvel, editor of The Nation queries, “If President Bush can head to the ranch for a month, why shouldn’t the Fair Labor Standards Act be amended so that every American who has worked at a job for at least a year gets three weeks’ vacation time annually, at minimum?” (See The Nation article.)

Amen, sister. And you can hold the e-mail too.

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