Hey Dude, Where’s My Vacation?
By David Moberg, In These Times. Posted June 23, 2007.
America is the richest country in the world — so why does this country deny its workers mandated paid vacations and sick days?
Last year Mary Lou Eckart took her first vacation in five years, a trip from her home in Decatur, Ill., to see her grandchildren in Florida. But the Illinois state government, which pays her to care for a severely disabled teenage girl, provides her no paid vacation time. So Eckart took the girl — and her work — with her.
She faces a similar bind if she gets sick. “I just had an incident two weeks ago,” she says. “I had an inner ear infection that I didn’t know about, and I passed out. My 17-year-old daughter covered for me while I recovered. I get no paid vacation, no time off, no sick leave. But if they put these clients in a nursing home, I know that is very expensive. I’d love to have a vacation. I’d love to be able to get away. I’d love to have someone fill in for me. I feel like we deserve more than what we’re getting.”
Eckart’s story is all too common: Nearly one-fourth of American workers have no paid vacation or holidays, according to a recent study from the D.C.-based Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR), and nearly half of all private sector workers have no paid sick days. But if Eckart were living in any other industrialized country, she would be legally guaranteed at least two weeks paid vacation and — in 136 countries — from seven to more than 30 paid sick days. The United States is the only rich country that does not mandate paid vacations and paid sick days, and Americans who are afforded such benefits enjoy far less time off than workers in other wealthy nations.
Americans now work more every year, on average, than workers in any other industrialized country (except for a virtual tie with New Zealand). With women working longer hours each year, the average annual work time for a married couple is growing steadily, and family time — including the crucial bonding experience of vacations — has suffered. Full-time workers in much of Europe typically take seven to eight weeks of vacation and holidays each year — that’s double the American average for full-time workers.
Overall, the average private sector worker in the United States gets about nine paid vacation days and six paid holidays each year. Low-paid, part-time or small-business workers typically get far fewer, sometimes none. The same holds for paid sick leave: 72 percent of the highest-paid quarter of private sector workers get paid sick days compared to only 21 percent of workers in the lowest-paid quarter.
Why do workers in other rich countries have more paid time off? Mainly because laws demand employers provide it. The European Union requires its members to set a minimum standard of four weeks paid vacation (covering part-time workers as well). Finland and France require six weeks paid vacation, plus additional paid holidays.
Most countries require workers to take the time off and employers to give them vacation at convenient times. Some governments even require employers to pay bonuses so workers can afford to do more than sit at home on vacation. On top of that, unions in Europe and other rich industrialized countries — whose contracts cover up to 90 percent of the workforce — typically negotiate additional time off. Meanwhile, the standard workweek is slightly shorter in many European countries, and workers retire earlier with better public pensions.
Until the early ’70s, European and American workers logged similar hours. But the pattern then drastically diverged, with Europeans getting more vacation time, around the same time that U.S. income inequality began growing. In the United States, corporations gained the upper hand against workers and their declining unions, and the Democratic Party started shifting away from working class concerns.
In Europe, stronger unions and left political parties pushed for shorter work hours. In some cases, as jobs were lost when traditional industries restructured or work was outsourced, unions saw reduced work time as a way to share work.
But more often, unions were continuing the battle to share wealth in the form of more leisure, which had started a century earlier with the movement for an eight-hour day — the goal of Chicago protestors in May, 1886, that ended in the Haymarket Massacre, repression of the labor movement, and creation of May 1 as the international workers’ holiday.
The difference in work hours between the United States and most industrial countries “is exactly a manifestation of the same forces driving broader inequality,” says CEPR economist John Schmitt, pointing to deterioration of the minimum wage, pensions, public services, health insurance and wages under pressure from globalization, deregulation, privatization and attacks on unions. “Workers haven’t been able to translate higher productivity gains into higher pay or benefits, and they’ve been unable to address the time crunch.”
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