Why are American workers left stranded at the pier while vacation boats are sailing off left and right without them? The primary reason: unlike other advanced countries, there is no law in the United States that says employers must grant their employees paid vacations–OR paid holidays. Result: 1 in 4 less affluent lower wage, part time and small business employees receive neither paid vacations nor holidays. And if you combine full and part-time workers, on average they receive a paltry 9 days of annual leave and 6 paid holidays.

For those workers who DO get paid vacations, it’s because their companies kindly “grant” them or collective bargaining has won them. Unlike other industrialized countries (see table comparing paid leave in OECD countries) the length of American vacations is strictly at the discretion of employers.

Some workers luck out and some do not. But even the lucky ones are nowhere near as lucky as French workers. Employees in France receive 30 workdays of paid leave free and clear every year. Forget seeing any locals in Paris during the month of August. They’ve packed up their bikinis and Bain de Soleil and fled the city for their month long holiday.

The French are actually a bit behind Finland which not only also grants all its’ workers a full months paid annual vacation, but also grants them an additional week their second year on the job. For time off though, Italy may take the vacation cake. Yes, Italians also get their sacred month long summer holiday, but on top of that, they receive 13 days of paid public holidays. And just so they don’t get too overworked, poor bambinos, wealthier Italians ALSO pack up their skis for their annual ski holiday known as “una settimana bianca” (a white week).

On this chart I counted 15 fortunate countries where workers are guaranteed a minimum of 4 weeks paid yearly vacation. And where is the United States on this vacation chart? At the very bottom in ignoble last place where our mandated paid vacation time is a big fat zero.

Some will see this as no problem. Haven’t hard working, innovative and productive workers made America great?  But behind this productivity are long, overtime work hours.  Forty percent of Americans work 50 hours a week and some are in their offices 60 to 70 hours. Yet well rested workers in France, Ireland, Norway and Holland, who take far longer vacations, are actually more productive. This seems to agree with a study by Ernst and Young that showed the longer the vacation their employees took, the better they performed.

More than a third of American workers don’t even take all the vacation time allotted them. And 88% carry electronics to stay in touch with the office while away from their precious desks. The reasons? Fear that work will pile up in their absence, or other employees may be seen as more devoted to the company and be promoted above them. Our poor economy has also convinced some workers their economic success is subservient to employers who can — and will — dump them in a minute.

According to Dr. Jeremy Reynolds, Professor of Sociology, cultural factors also influence how much time we work. “Cultural norms may encourage work as an end in itself or as a means to acquiring other things, including consumer products.” Many Americans continually want more and more. They want the latest model, the newest thing and the bragging rights that go with that. So they need to work more hours to have the money to spend on those shiny consumer enticements.

Do you think Americans work too many hours? Should this country have legally guaranteed vacation time for all?

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