Why the US should mandate paid vacations

It's vacation season. But a third of American working women are given no paid leave, and a quarter of men get no pay from their employer if they take a week or more off for rest and recreation.

Unlike other industrialized nations, the United States has no law requiring companies to give their workers a paid vacation of any duration.

Groups campaigning to change labor laws to favor workers are not optimistic. "I don't think we will see mandated vacation time in the US anytime soon," says Sylvia Allegretto, an economist at the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) in Washington.

Business has so much clout in Washington it can easily block such a move in Congress. Trade unions in the US are too weak to win a paid vacation battle.

"We have had no success in moving anything out of committee," says John de Graaf, national coordinator of Take Back Your Time, a nonprofit association in Seattle campaigning to shorten American work hours. "It is not taken seriously by either political party."

But in general, Democrats offer a more sympathetic ear to Mr. de Graaf and others seeking more time off for workers.

In his speech to the Republican convention in 2004, President Bush spoke about how two-thirds of mothers are working out of the home today. To help these mothers manage better, "government must take your side," he said.

Since then, however, "government has stifled every effort to take your side," complains de Graaf.

As it is, Americans in effect work nine more weeks per year than their counterparts in Western Europe. So de Graaf's group has labeled Oct. 24, with nine weeks to go before the year ends, as "Take Back Your Time Day."

The "standard unit" for time off has increasingly become the long weekend, says Joe Robinson, founder of Work to Live, a group in Santa Monica, Calif., advocating for a minimum paid leave law and longer vacations given by business. Yet with cellphones, Blackberries, and laptop computers often invading our weekends and evenings, "we have a nation on the verge of a nervous breakdown," he says.

One argument against longer vacations is that Americans take great pride in long work hours and believe that their identity and self-worth ride on work.

"It's hard to tell if workers don't value vacations," says Ms. Allegretto. Possibly they value the consumption of extra goods that long work hours can provide more than they do the leisure time.

Yet surveys by Democratic and Republican pollsters find the biggest complaint of working women with children is a lack of time for leisure and family.

Various studies find that vacations are a boost to the health of employees, that they come back refreshed, more creative, with a better work attitude, and possibly more productive, for a time.

But US employers tend to see paid vacations as a cost. The benefits of granting vacation time are much harder for a business to quantify in dollars and cents.

"Vacations are becoming an endangered species," says Mr. Robinson. "Employers are increasingly finding they can get away with providing less vacation time."

It's different abroad. Britain added a week to its mandatory vacation time in the past year. New Zealand did the same a year before. China mandates three "Golden Weeks" for its workers.

Another argument used by employers against mandated vacations is that they would damage productivity. Yet some European nations rank higher than the US in productivity per hour worked. These include oil-rich Norway, creating $62.66 per hour in goods and services, often-criticized France at $54.03 per hour, and Ireland at $48.86 an hour, according to the EPI.

US employees produce, on average, $47.42 an hour. About a quarter of a dollar behind are German workers. British employees produce $41.14 an hour, and Japanese workers, $34.80 an hour.

In other words, Americans may have the most prosperous employees of the major industrial nations, but that's because they sacrifice their time off – not because they are especially productive.

An academic paper last year by economists Alberto Alesina and Edward Glaeser of Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass. and Bruce Sacerdote of Dartmouth College, in Hanover, N.H., examined the difference between the US and Europe in labor regulations and hours actually worked.

Including the unemployed and part-time workers, Americans averaged 25.1 working hours per person of working age per week. Germans averaged 18.6 hours. The average American works 46.2 weeks a year. The French average 40 weeks.

This difference, the three economists hold, is not due to long-standing European culture. In fact, Europeans worked more than Americans as late as the 1960s. Nor can it be explained by higher tax rates in Europe with its socialized healthcare. Instead, they found that the greater power of trade unions in Western Europe accounts for the "bulk" of vacation time enjoyed by European workers.

Robinson and de Graaf hope to make vacations part of the national conversation and an issue in the 2008 election, maybe even this fall's political campaign.

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