POLITICS
08/04/2018 08:00 am ET Updated Aug 06, 2018

Go Ahead And Take A Week Off If You Can

U.S. workers aren't guaranteed vacation time, and those who get it aren't taking full advantage.
This dog is taking full advantage of his annual leave benefits, but most U.S. workers aren't.
damedeeso via Getty Images
This dog is taking full advantage of his annual leave benefits, but most U.S. workers aren't.

Not taking vacation helps make America great, according to the Donald Trump administration.

“The American work ethic, the motivation that drives Americans to work longer hours each week and more weeks each year than any of our economic peers, is a long-standing contributor to America’s success,” the White House’s Council of Economic Advisers wrote last month in a paper about kicking people off welfare.

But it’s not necessarily superior moral principles that make Americans work those extra weeks. It’s fear of getting fired. 

More than three-quarters of U.S. workers get some amount of paid vacation ― typically two weeks, according to the Labor Department ― making it the most common type of paid leave after holidays. But most people don’t take full advantage of it. In a recent survey from Project: Time Off, a think tank funded by travel companies, 52 percent of workers said they failed to use all of their vacation time last year.

“Employees who were concerned that they would appear less dedicated or even replaceable if they took a vacation were dramatically less likely to use all their vacation time,” the survey found. Such workers were also likelier to say they liked the idea of working while on vacation.

“There’s a culture in most workplaces in the U.S. of that being a good thing, to work through your vacation, whereas in other advanced countries that’s kind of frowned upon,” Lonnie Golden, an economics professor at Penn State Abington who in his own work has found that some workers use “presenteeism,” or longer work hours, as a strategy for avoiding layoffs and snagging promotions.

The average American worker spent 1,780 hours on the job in 2017, according to data from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. The average in other OECD countries is 1,728, the organization said, which amounts to a difference of 6.5 work days.

The difference is starker when you compare the U.S. to its economic peers in Western Europe. Germans worked on average 1,356 hours in 2017, the French worked 1,514 hours, and the British worked 1,681 hours, which is almost two and a half fewer weeks than we put in here.

A key reason for the difference is that those other countries have laws requiring companies to offer a specific amount of vacation time, typically much more than what American companies voluntarily provide. The European Union, for example, requires member nations to give workers at least four weeks of paid vacation; many EU nations offer even more than that.

The U.S., on the other hand, is the only developed nation with no national policy for annual leave. If an employer offers paid leave, it’s a perk. It’s not your right as an American worker to take a vacation.

“This is a serious labor issue,” said Jon Messenger, a senior researcher with the International Labour Organization. “It’s astonishing that the U.S. has no such law, nothing that’s nationally applicable, no framework of any kind that requires paid vacation for all workers.”

The Trump administration’s claim that Americans value long work hours is fairly banal in today’s politics. In the 19th and early 20th century, the American labor movement advocated for shorter hours but basically dropped the demand after World War II. While it’s Republicans who want to cut programs that help people physically survive without market income, Democrats generally agree that hard work is glorious and should be highly valued.

At the same time, most people seem to think that more vacation would be good. Eighty-seven percent of Democrats and 65 percent of Republicans said they favored requiring businesses to offer paid vacation, according to a 2014 HuffPost/YouGov survey. Large majorities of both Republicans and Democrats said they needed a vacation in a 2016 HuffPost/YouGov survey.

There’s not much chance Congress will take up annual leave legislation any time soon ― not even paid parental leave gets much respect among Republicans on Capitol Hill ― but people who want more vacation could start by valuing their free time enough to use the leave benefits they already have.  

It’s possible that falling unemployment, which (theoretically) should give workers more leverage, is making it easier for workers to use their benefits. According to Project: Time Off, Americans have been taking slightly more vacation time in recent years, though not as much as they did during Ronald Reagan’s presidency.

Go ahead, take a vacation!

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