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Welcome to America, the Land That Vacation Forgot

• May 29, 2013 • 4:02 PM

Yes, Griswolds, wave bye-bye to any thought of federally mandated paid vacation. (PHOTO: WARNER BROS)

Time off for being young? For working swing shift? With extra pay? Not only were U.S. vacation policies drafted by Ebenezer Scrooge before (a working-day) Christmas, but there are lots of time-off practices the Land of the Free missed entirely.

While it’s no news to anyone who runs into European travelers entering the second month of their time off work, the United States is pretty stingy about giving people vacation. Legally, as the Center for Economic and Policy Research reminded us last week in a reported entitled “No-Vacation Nation Revisited,” there is no national law requiring employers to offer holidays or vacations as there is in every other industrialized nation. We do have unpaid family leave—it’s even paid in a few places—but there too the U.S. is out of step with the rest of the rich world. Individual employers, of course, can offer what they choose.

Alan Grayson’s bill initially offers a pretty modest one week off with pay a year for workers at concerns employing at least a hundred people.

Not surprisingly, the report notes that lower-wage workers, part-timers, and those at small businesses are the least likely to have bosses who offer any vacation or paid holidays. All told, according to information gathered by the liberal-leaning think tank, 23 percent of working Americans get no paid vacation or paid holidays, and the average from those who do get some time off is “less than the minimum legal standard set in the rest of the world’s rich economies excluding Japan (which guarantees only 10 paid vacation days and requires no paid holidays).” Yay, American drones beat Japan’s fabled salarymen!

There are moves to bring the U.S. up to speed. Congressman Alan Grayson, a Democrat from Florida, just happened to introduce the Paid Vacation Act as the CEPR report was making headlines. His bill—I say we dub it ObamaCares—initially offers a pretty modest one week off with pay a year for workers at concerns employing at least a hundred people. Three years after the putative law takes effect, that would rise to two weeks, and for those laboring at places with at least 50 workers the one-week-a-year provision would kick in.

Grayson’s bill also calls for a simultaneous study on how this mandated time off affects workplace productivity, public health, and psychological well-being.

Given the howls that accompany every effort to raise the minimum wage, including the Obama Administration’s current proposal to push it to $9 an hour, and the melodrama accompanying the Affordable Care Act, I predict rough sailing for any attempt to require the private sector to offer new benefits. (Hell, we can’t even hold the line on the existing ones.)

So expecting Grayson’s bill to go down to defeat anyway, I suggest cherry-picking some perks identified in the CEPR report and adding them into the bill just so Americans can see how sweet it can be overseas.

• The European Union requires a floor of 20 paid vacation days a year. Since that’s the floor, some countries offer more—the French, no surprise, require 30 days (gotta account for that de facto August shutdown) while even our cousins in Britain require 28 days off.

• Europeans are also pretty liberal with paid holidays, including religious events like Easter, Christmas, Good Friday, and Whit Monday, that harken back to that increasingly secular continent’s Christian heritage. Portugal and Spain each require 13 paid holidays, although that’s not an EU directive: Denmark, the Netherlands, Sweden, and the United Kingdom have no mandated paid holidays, nor do non-E.U. countries like Japan and Switzerland.

• While it’s common in the U.S. that where paid vacation does exist it increases with seniority, some countries specifically offer younger workers more time off. Austria and Switzerland give them five days off, Germany between one and six based on age, and Italy 10 days! The Swiss offer some extra incentives for good behavior; those under 30 who volunteer to work with young children get an extra week off.

• No longer a twentysomething? Norway gives workers over 60 an extra week off.

• There’s lots of research showing how shift work takes a toll on humans. Australia and Austria gives those on swing or graveyard extra time off.

And what good is vacation if you can’t afford to do anything? So let me close on this extensive bon mot (French for 30 freakin’ days off) from the report:

Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Greece, and Sweden require employers to pay workers at a premium rate while they are on vacation. Austria is the most generous—employers pay workers taking their month-long vacation a “13th month” salary, paid at the same time as the usual monthly salary, but taxed at a lower rate. Greece also has a “14th month” salary, half of which employees receive during vacation, the other half is received at Easter, and the “13th month” at Christmas—this works out to Greek workers receiving 150 percent of their regular monthly salary as holiday pay. In Belgium, employees receive their normal salary for the period, plus an additional twelfth of 92 percent of their gross salary for the month that their leave is taken. Employees in Denmark receive a holiday supplement equal to one percent of their annual salary. In Sweden, employees’ annual leave pay is 12 percent of their annual salary. Canadian workers also may be paid a higher rate while on vacation. While laws for vacation pay differ among provinces, most employees receive a slight premium by receiving an additional two percent of their gross annual pay per week of vacation.

Michael Todd
Most of Michael Todd's career has been spent in newspaper journalism, ranging from papers in the Marshall Islands to tiny California farming communities. Before joining the publishing arm of the Miller-McCune Center, he was managing editor of the national magazine Hispanic Business.

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