America is no-vacation nation

The US is the only developed economy without legally mandated vacations and it’s costing us more than just money

Published August 26, 2013 3:12PM (EDT)

                (<a href=''>Christopher Parypa</a> via <a href=''>Shutterstock</a>)
(Christopher Parypa via Shutterstock)

This article originally appeared on Alternet.


Americans as a society generally don’t take vacations. While many of us would love to travel, we live in an economy where job security is rare and most of us live in fear that if we take any time off work, our job may not be waiting for us upon our return. We live on part-time and temporary job contracts where we don’t always know where our next source of income will come from. Our work culture prevents us from taking long vacations abroad and instills within us a sense of guilt for seeking the simple pleasure of time away from the office.

Moreover, America is the only developed nation that doesn't legally guarantee any paid vacation time for its workers. In a recent study, The Centre for Economic and Policy Research, found that in the absence of government standards, almost one in four Americans have no paid vacation (23%) and no paid holidays (23%) and the average worker in the private sector receives only 10 days of paid vacation per year. Contrast this with European countries where most employees are legally entitled to at least 20 days of paid vacation per year.

What’s more, here in the US we work considerably longer hours than other developed nations. Take The Netherlands, for example, where in many cities, banks are only open four days a week and a three-day weekend is the norm for the service industry. It’s quite the reverse on our soil where it is not uncommon for corporate employees to work 15-hour days some even falling asleep at the job.

While we are conditioned to believe that such commitment to our jobs is necessary, honorable and demonstrative of dedication, in reality, this work culture is in fact causing our society a lot more harm than good.  According to William Chalmers, author of “America's Vacation Deficit Disorder: Who Stole Your Vacation?” our failure to take vacations is costing US businesses and taxpayers over a trillion dollars a year and is shortening the lives of Americans.  Chalmers explains in his book:

“Workplace stress alone exceeds $300 billion; direct employer costs involved in employee turnover runs about 150% of annual compensation rates, multiplied by 3.3% of U.S. employment figures that show that workers regularly leave their jobs monthly. Chronic workplace absenteeism costs are estimated to be $153 billion a year in lost productivity; … presenteeism alone costs $2,000 per year per employee and … the collective lost opportunity costs of presenteeism are estimated to be 7.5 times more costly to employers than absenteeism … Added together you’re looking at a number in the ball park of $1.5 trillion,” he wrote.

Moreover, Chalmers asserts that numerous studies show that people who do not take vacations are more at risk of stress, job burnout, depression and premature death:

“Taking a one or two week vacation is actually good for business and the U.S. economy because it allows the individual to recharge, revitalize and come back to the workforce refreshed and more creative and ready to work. Large understanding corporations do provide vacation time because they realize that employees are more likely to stay in their job if granted vacation thereby avoiding astronomical job turnover costs in having to replace staff,” the founder of The Global Scavenger Hunt told Alternet.

In addition, a 2006 Ernst & Young study, found that employees who took more vacation time were not only more likely to stay with the firm but also received higher performance reviews. In fact, for each additional 10 hours an employee took of vacation time, performance review rose 8% the following year.

Moreover, Google has recognized the importance of vacations, offering first year employees up to 15 days of paid vacation and a 20% program which encourages employees to use a fifth of their paid work hours to pursue projects they are passionate about.

Still, the majority of Americans hold the view that taking a vacation is just not practical, affordable or realistic. In the US, college graduates have accumulated so much debt by the time they complete a college degree that they have no choice but to take a job, rather than take a vacation, in order to pay it off.  CNNreported, a one-year break in your resume could make an American employer question your commitment to a company.

Furthermore, the decline of unions – in 2011, unions represented just over 11% of all US workers – coupled with the lack of mandatory vacation time and “entrepreneurial-protestant” work ethic has led to what Chalmers describes as the “celebrity-ego mentality” whereby we think we are so invaluable in our job that we can’t possibly take a vacation because our office wouldn’t survive without us. Alternatively, we are under a belief that if we do take a holiday, our employers will realize that they don’t actually need us and we will get fired.

Then of course there’s the plainly obvious fact that we simply just cannot afford a vacation. According to the 2012 US Census Bureau, 46.2 million Americans are living in poverty.  Moreover, 38% of all American families live pay check to pay check and nearly a quarter of Americans (24%) say they have had trouble putting food on the table in the past 12 months,Alternet’s Don Hazen reported.  In fact, only 39% of Americans even own a passport.

Yet, according to Matt Stabile, founder of The Expeditioner Travel Magazine, financial concerns aren’t the only reason Americans don’t take vacations:

“The most common excuse given by Americans in defending the fact that they don’t travel is that the US is a giant country so the cost to go anywhere is very expensive. Time and distance is another reason - we have very limited vacation days. So many Americans would therefore prefer to rent an RV and explore and trek our own country rather than pay thousands of dollars to fly to other states or overseas,” he told Alternet.

Stabile also attributes part of the problem to cultural conservatism. In his article, “How Many Americans Have a Passport,” Stabile compared the results of the 2012 presidential elections with those who owned a passport, finding that those states that voted for Romney in 2012 tended to be states with the lowest number of passport holders, while those states that voted for Obama had the highest percentage of passport holders:

“Historically the US has been a leader in foreign affairs, so if we are acting in that role whether by choice or through the people, it is important we understand the world around us. As a democracy, our leaders should be aware of the rest of the world, understand those cultures and be informed when making decisions on our behalf.

“There is a really big fear of uncertainty and a lack of understanding of international travel by Americans. Our country has a fear of immigrants and a history of xenophobia, which we’re always attempting to overcome. Without travelling and experiencing other cultures, or putting ourselves in the shoes of others outside of our borders, we create an ‘us versus them’ mentality. From another perspective, it’s harder to send in a drone to another country if you have spent a week living in a village in that location,” he said.

Likewise, there isn’t much emphasis on knowledge of the outside world in the US. Negative media reports on civil unrest and political problems in countries have also made people fearful of travelling. As international business expands, this will inevitably have to change, as Americans will be forced to learn new languages to communicate effectively in the industry.

Yet, despite the grim portrait and negative rap we’ve received as a no-vacation nation, according to the US Office of Travel and Tourism Industries,, 58.7 million Americans travelled overseas on vacation in 2011-2012.

Moreover, US Travel Association (USTA) reports that direct spending on “leisure travel” totaled $597 billion in 2012 and 14.6 million jobs were supported by travel expenditures with $12.8 billion  representing the total tax revenue generated by travel spending. As Spokesperson for USTA Cathy O’Keefe explained to Alternet, domestic travel in the US continues to increase steadily with Americans tending to take multiple shorter length trips rather than long vacations abroad.

Accordingly, in an effort to change the way business leaders and policy makers think about travel, USTA launched the Travel Effect a multimillion dollar campaign compiling data and research to underscore the benefits of travel: “Travelling within the US creates long lasting memories and bonds that you may not have otherwise forged. Travel helps personal relationships and it helps to create memories with children. Data shows that travelling can lead to a better sex life and reignite a relationship. Government meeting studies show that travel improves a child’s educational intake and roaming is a vital path of a family life,” she said.

So how do we promote the notion of travel in our society and subsequently resolve the supposed “vacation deficit disorder”? Chalmers has the answer: "I call it the ‘4% Solution’ and it would only cost America less than 1% to implement. The 4% Solution proposes that all American workers get at least two weeks of paid vacation time off a year. Two weeks out of fifty-two weeks in a year equals four percent. Allowing every American worker to receive the 4% Solution would cost the American economy less than one percent to implement,” he said. For those who like math, here’s how Chalmers crunched the numbers: First he divided the total work force participation number (155, 511, 000 according to US Bureau of Labor Statistics) by the 40% of employees who don’t currently receive any vacation benefits – approximately 62,204,000 people. He then multiplied this figure by the average fortnightly or bi-weekly salary in America, which is $1,638.00 ($819.00 is the average weekly salary times two weeks of paid vacation). This equals $101.9 billion dollars when rounded off to the nearest decimal point, which is less than one percent (.6%) of our nation’s $15.8 trillion GDP. Hence, it costs less than one percent to implement the 4% Solution.

Chalmers believes such measures would improve our health, fix on-the-job productivity which would in turn increase profit line margins, decrease the use of sick leave, reduce unscheduled absentees, enhance morale and boost the overall economy.

Unsurprisingly, all measures to introduce legislation mandating vacation time in the US has failed to date and is likely to continue to face tough opposition in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives who continue to criticize all attempts as too taxing on business owners.

By Jodie Gummow

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Alternet America Leisure Mental Illness Politics Vacation Work