The History Of Paid Vacation: While Europe Evolved, America Fell Flat

Americans, in general, are overworked. In comparison to other countries, our downtime to vacation and regroup is merely a sliver. Summer used to mark the beginning of the vacation year, but that’s no longer true. A new study conducted by the Center for Economic and Policy Research, shows that 25% of Americans and 31% of low-wage earning employees no longer have paid vacation time.

Author of the new book, Don’t Miss Your Life, Joe Robinson, has been one of many to try to change this fact. Since 2000 he, with the help of John de Graaf, the national coordinator of the organization Take Back Your Time, have been trying to get the Fair Labor Standards Act passed giving Americans the right that 138 other countries have. That right being a “no minimum paid leave law to make vacations statutorily legit.”

In May 2009, Congressman Alan Grayson of Florida tried to pass the Paid Vacation Act that would insure a minimum paid leave law for all Americans. It was the first ever of its kind. And although Grayson and its supporters pointed out obvious facts that rested employees would, in the long run, lead to far greater productivity and a lift in company morale, he also strongly felt is was a matter of justice. But the act fell flat with lawmakers saying it wasn’t “the right time,” to pass such a thing stating that it would “kill jobs.” It was the height of the recession, but the fact remained, scientifically, that vacation time wouldn’t kill anything, but rather enhance work output and employee happiness.

In 1910, President Taft had the novel idea of suggesting that every American worker needed a good 2-3 months of vacation a year “in order to continue his work next year with the energy and effectiveness which it ought to have.” Although adamant in his stance, American legislature didn’t feel the same. However, both Sweden and Germany heard him loud and clear, and began to enact their own laws on the subject. On average, both countries have seven weeks of paid holiday time a year – and that’s just the average. I have a friend whose mother, a Swedish resident, negotiated 12 weeks paid vacation when she recently switched jobs. Say it: twelve weeks paid vacation. That’s three months off a year, and it’s paid. It’s no wonder Europeans are healthier and live longer.

In the 1930′s, the Labor Department put together the Committee of Vacations with Pay to look into the issue and why it was that the States didn’t have a law enforcing it. At the time, 30 countries had at least some sort of mandated policy when it came to protecting the right of paid vacations. How it was that a country that regarded itself as the most powerful in the world could be so lax in how it treated the mental and physical health of its working community didn’t make sense. Instead, as Europe, Australia and Brazil made vast headway in creating laws that would insist on paid vacation from the 1960′s through the 1970′s, with 5-7 paid vacation weeks by law, America stayed put. Now, in 2011, paid vacations are currently on the decline for Americans. I have a word for this: fail.

Joe Robinson says the real question that needs to be asked is, “when is the right time to live?” At this rate, America is 80 years behind when it comes to minimum paid leave. How much more time do we have to wait? Even communist North Korea is far ahead in the movement.

If we’re going to consider ourselves an influential and inspiring power nation, the first step is in protecting the individual rights of our society. The second step is insuring a high-quality of living for our citizens. If the majority of the countries on this planet, even the ones we consider backward in their politics and lifestyle, are far more progressive in this aspect, it’s time for Congress to get the ball rolling. Common sense shouldn’t be for everyone but the American lawmakers.

You can reach this post's author, Amanda Chatel, on twitter.
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