Earlier this month, Senator Bernie Sanders introduced the Guaranteed Paid Vacation Act—a bill requiring employers with at least 15 employees to provide 10 days of paid vacation. The Bill currently has a whopping 0 co-sponsors, which is exactly the same number of co-sponsors Representative Alan Grayson’s Paid Vacation Act (a similar bill) received in the last Congress. Despite evidence of overwhelming public support for such legislation, members of Congress won’t come close to mandating paid vacation.
As a result, U.S. workers receive far less vacation than their peers in other advanced economies. According to a 2013 report by the Center for Economic Policy and Research (CEPR):
The United States is the only advanced economy in the world that does not guarantee its workers paid vacation. European countries establish legal rights to at least 20 days of paid vacation per year, with legal requirements of 25 and even 30 or more days in some countries. Australia and New Zealand both require employers to grant at least 20 vacation days per year; Canada and Japan mandate at least 10 paid days off. The gap between paid time off in the United States and the rest of the world is even larger if we include legally mandated paid holidays, where the United States offers none, but most of the rest of the world’s rich countries offer at least six paid holidays per year.
While many private sector employers provide paid vacation (on average, ten days of paid vacation per year, plus six paid holidays, according to CEPR), low-wage workers and part-time workers are far less likely to have paid vacations. It is also turns out that even those workers lucky enough have paid vacation are unlikely to exhaust it. As reported in the Atlantic, a 2014 report by the U.S. Travel Association found that about 40% of American workers allow some of their paid vacation days to go unused or expire. A 2013 study similarly found that workers let an “average of 3.2 vacation days expire, unused.”
What explains American’s reluctance to step away from work? Matthew Rozsa, writing in Salon.com notes that, “because Americans aren’t guaranteed vacation days like their European and Canadian counterparts, they worry more about their job security.” Recent surveys bear this out. For instance, 22% of workers surveyed by the U.S. Travel Association expressed concern about being “seen as replaceable” while on vacation. According to a Glassdoor.com survey (as reported by the BBC): “Some 28% of workers told Glassdoor they feared falling behind in their work, while 17% feared losing their job. Another 19% said they didn’t take long vacations because they wanted to have an edge over the competition for a promotion.”
These perceptions tend to come from the top. According the U.S. Travel Association, “Even though senior business leaders overwhelmingly recognize the importance of using time off (95%), two-thirds (67%) of American employees say their company says nothing, sends mixed messages about or discourages using their PTO.”
As with all policy judgments—whether in Congress or at the office—vacation policy boils down to a question of values. Do we care about extracting the maximal hours of labor from American workers? Or do want American workers to have a quality of life that affords them a break from work without the threat of repercussions.
Sanders, who is running for president, has cleverly framed his Vacation Act as a “Family Values” bill. As Sanders reportedly explained on the Senate floor, “what family values are about is that at least for two weeks a year, people can come together under a relaxed environment and enjoy the family… That is a family value that I want to see happen in this country.”
The question for America’s politicians and employers is: do you share these values?