by Jamison Maeda
Summer has arrived, and people across the globe are beginning their holidays on sunny beaches and in exotic locales. Except for one rather surprising group.
Nearly half of American workers receive no paid vacation or paid holidays whatsoever. That’s almost 60 million workers. American employers are not required by law to pay workers for time not worked. These benefits are solely provided at the employer’s discretion. Even the average amount of paid vacation and paid bank holidays that some workers do receive wouldn’t meet the minimums required by law in other developed countries. And those American workers who are offered paid time off are frequently too overworked to use it. Over 40% of workers surveyed said they were unable to take the time off they’re entitled to because of heavy workloads.
Workers in the European Union are legally guaranteed at least 20 paid vacation days per year, with some countries requiring 30 or more days. But in the US, nearly half of workers receive none, particularly lower income workers. For them, taking a summer holiday is not an option, and missing work due to illness can be financially devastating. Americans frequently show up sick to work and infect others because they can’t afford to take time off.
American workers’ organizations and labor unions began the fight for the benefits that American workers receive today over 200 years ago. In 1791, carpenters in Philadelphia went on strike to establish a maximum of 10 work hours per day. At the time, the work day could go on for 16 hours a day, six days a week. Then, in 1835, American workers led by Irish coal heavers organized another general strike again to restrict the work day to 10 hours. Soon, labor movement publications called for an 8 hour day. In 1864, the Chicago labor movement also began demanding an 8 hour work day. Three years later, a city-wide strike shut down the city’s economy for a week. The fight for an 8 hour workday spread to other workers’ organizations across the country, but it wasn’t until 1916 that the first US law established an 8 hour day for railroad workers, with additional pay for overtime.
Paid time off not only benefits the worker, but it has a positive impact on the economy, particularly the travel industry. In their Assessment of Paid Time Off in the US, Oxford Economics stated that time off leads to productivity gains. While paid time off does cost the employer, the Oxford Economics study indicates a net increase in productivity.
This is not to say no Americans receive sufficient paid time off. Though the average private sector U.S. worker receives only 16 paid vacation days and holidays, some employers, particularly in finance and technology, offer much more. And members of Congress in the US receive quite a few paid days off of work. Out of the 250 work days in 2014, members of Congress are only scheduled to work 113 days. It’s remarkable that Congress has so many paid days off but won’t legislate for the same for American workers whom they claim to represent.