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The Pitfalls Of Being A No-Vacation Nation

Rich Barlow: "Advocating paid vacation isn't bellyaching about work. It's about pushing back against a mindset that mistakes round-the-clock labor for virtue." (Eric/flickr)
Rich Barlow: "Advocating paid vacation isn't bellyaching about work. It's about pushing back against a mindset that mistakes round-the-clock labor for virtue." (Eric/flickr)
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“The United States is the only advanced economy in the world that does not guarantee its workers paid vacation.”

I wanted to put you in a cheery mood off the bat. That quote begins “No-Vacation Nation Revisited,” a report two years ago by the Center for Economic and Policy Research. It may rankle some readers during this school vacation week, when getting compensated time off with the kids would have meant not having to choose between paying the babysitter and making rent. Our European Union friends are not so troubled, as their governments mandate that they get 20 or more paid days off annually, the researchers reported. Business-knows-best types will shrug that off as Old World sloth, but they can't so easily dismiss famously butt-busting Japanese workers, who are guaranteed at least 10 paid vacation days.

"The United States is the only advanced economy in the world that does not guarantee its workers paid vacation."

Center for Economic and Policy Research

"The prudent, penniless beginner in the world," Abraham Lincoln rhapsodized, "labors for wages awhile, saves a surplus with which to buy tools or land for himself, then labors on his own account another while, and at length hires another new beginner to help him." The Railsplitter romanticized the rigors and drudgery of much work, but he was right that America’s relentless striving has made us a creative, wealthy nation. And those who choose to be workaholics exercise a basic (if neurotic) freedom. But, especially for low-income workers, workaholism is often imposed, not chosen.

If we can't jump-start more private-sector unions to bargain for paid vacations and other benefits, then the government should mandate minimum paid vacation time for American workers.

Providing this benefit would make life more pleasant for the 23 percent of workers whose employers, the report found, grant no paid vacation. It also would take us one baby step toward reducing inequality. "Only half of low-wage workers (bottom fourth of earners) have any paid vacation," according to the report, "compared to 90 percent of high-wage workers (top fourth of earners)."

These low-end of workers not only are less likely to get paid time off the job, they're more likely to toil nights and weekends than citizens of other countries, selling coffee, gas and Doritos to more leisure-blessed, higher-earning Americans, according to another study. Laissez-faire libertarians who say this is the way of the capitalist world should talk to Denise Rush, who shared her story with The New York Times.

Rush often works seven days a week in her home health job, yet needs public assistance from food stamps and Medicaid, since her $9.50 hourly wage can't support her and her two daughters. "It's a crazy dilemna," she told the newspaper. "Do I pay the whole bill or do I gas up the car to go to work?" Working more than full time, yet not receiving a living wage, is just wrong. Period.

In 2013, the same year the no-vacation report came out, Florida Congressman Alan Grayson pushed for a law extracting from employers at least one week a year of paid leave. Grayson’s no slouch himself (his biography says he put himself through Harvard working as a janitor and night watchman, still managing to graduate with high honors), but his legislative exertions weren’t enough to get his bill through Congress.

Would his proposal have run the economy aground? Hardly. Japan is a marvel of wealth-winning work ethic, with more paid vacation than Grayson advocated. Besides, while the economic costs of any policy must be considered, making the bottom line the only line in discussions like this is myopic. The eminently conservative Pat Buchanan, responding years ago to free traders who warned protectionism would hurt the economy, wrote that there’s more to life and a great nation than tallying dollar signs.

Those who choose to be workaholics exercise a basic (if neurotic) freedom. But, especially for low-income workers, workaholism is often imposed, not chosen.

I disagree with Buchanan’s protectionism but share his wariness of those whose only lens on the world is filtered through a balance sheet. Those old enough to recall the 1980s debate over whether to create Martin Luther King, Jr. Day know that advocates had to overcome arguments about lost business productivity. Three decades later, one less January workday hasn’t rabbit-punched the economy.

In truth, this is a debate not over economics, but values. Advocating paid vacation isn't bellyaching about work, which can confer dignity and purpose to people. It's about pushing back against a mindset that mistakes round-the-clock labor for virtue.

Related:

Rich Barlow Cognoscenti contributor
Rich Barlow writes for BU Today, Boston University's news website.

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