Take back your time 

Americans don't take enough vacations

Americans don’t take enough vacations
October may seem an odd time to be thinking about vacations, but not when you consider the fact that by this past Oct. 24, American workers put in as many hours on the job as our counterparts in Western Europe and other industrialized nations do all year. On average, we work about nine weeks more each year than do people in Canada, the U.K., France, Germany, Japan, Spain and a host of other countries. Why do we work much longer hours, but not necessarily more productive ones, than people in Belgium or Brazil? It may be partly due to our ever-increasingly competitive American workplace culture, but it’s also directly attributable to the fact that we’re the only one of the 20 or so most industrialized nations without any government-mandated vacation policy. Officially speaking, we’re entitled to exactly zero days of vacation a year. That leaves us dependent on the largesse of our employers for vacation time, with policies varying radically across industries and wage levels. The average American worker receives 10 vacation days per year (compared to five to six weeks for Europeans), but one in four U.S. workers take no vacation at all, according to the Work To Live campaign. Work To Live, a growing grass-roots movement, is lobbying Congress to pass an amendment to the Fair Labor Standards Act guaranteeing three weeks of paid leave for every American worker, increasing to four weeks after three years with a company. Even workers who do have vacation benefits may be loath to exercise them in the current economic climate, where stories of workers coming back from vacation only to find they’ve been downsized abound. Unemployment remains stuck at 6.1 percent, a 10-year high. Those of us lucky enough to have jobs feel compelled to guard them closely, especially when the neo-Protestant work ethic that governs many workplaces prizes overexertion, and looks askance at people who actually use the vacation they’ve earned as lazy or unmotivated. Work To Live and other vacation reform advocates argue that increasing vacation time for U.S. workers will not only benefit employers by making us more efficient, and reducing the physical and mental effects of job-related stress — estimated to cost some $200 billion a year — but will also translate into broad social benefits. With one-third of Americans working more than 50 hours a week, including 66 percent of mothers who work outside the home, Work To Live movement founder Joe Robinson claims that guaranteed vacation time “would restore the integrity of the family and the quality of life that has been obliterated by overwork.” Mandating paid vacation time may seem an overly utopian, even simplistic, solution to the problem of overwork. But what might you do if you got three or four weeks of your life back each year? Those of us who aren’t well-off might not be able to go away on vacation, but that doesn’t mean we couldn’t think of plenty to do close to home. If you have children, maybe you’d spend a day or two each month helping out at your child’s school; if you have elderly parents, you’d be able to take off work to go with them to doctor’s appointments, or just spend a bit more time with them; maybe you’d have time to found a community group, run for local office or take up a hobby that you used to enjoy. Me? For starters, I’d finally finish reading Anna Karenina, learn how to bake really great bread, go hiking on the Appalachian Trail and start a rock band. What about you? Before you start planning your next vacation, though, here’s a reality check: Not since the Depression has there been any national dialogue about decreasing the work week, and even then, proposed 30-hour work week legislation failed to pass. The current Bush Administration is one of the least worker-friendly in memory — earlier this month, House Democrats narrowly defeated an amendment to the Fair Labor Standards Act that would have eliminated overtime pay for some 8 million workers. And though some liberal economists have proposed reducing the work week in order to stimulate job growth, don’t expect Bush to take a cue from the French — who saw a reduction in unemployment from 13 percent to 9 percent, partly due to the institution of a 35-hour work week in 1998 — and try to get back some of the 3 million jobs we’ve lost since he took office. Hey, why should he care about legislating vacation for average Americans when he took the longest vacation in presidential history this past summer? Democratic presidential candidates serious about improving the quality of life of working Americans would do well to support a nationalized vacation policy. Unlike many of the focus-grouped, market-tested platforms we’ve heard so far, mandating vacations for all workers would give us something we could actually use: time.

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