2009 — Summer / Commentary

Legislation Sought for our “No-Vacation” Nation

The United States is the only developed country in the world in which workers are not guaranteed the right to a paid vacation under the law. In fact, our epidemic of overwork is so widespread that many people don’t see the need for initiative. “One more government mandate,” they mutter. One need only look at other countries around the world to see that the US is out of step. In the European Union, workers are guaranteed a minimum of 20 paid vacation days yearly. Canada and Japan are the misers in the lot, but each mandates ten paid vacation days, and Canada mandates eight additional paid holiday days. It’s a national embarrassment that 28 million Americans don’t get any paid vacation or paid holidays. The US has become the “No-Vacation Nation” according to the Center for Economic and Policy Research, and the cumulative effects of this reality are showing up on our vital statistics. In 1980, Americans ranked 11th in the world in life expectancy. We have now slipped to 42nd.

In May, I was invited to speak at a Congressional Press Conference in Washington, DC in support of legislation mandating paid vacation leave, “The Paid Vacation Act of 2009.” This legislation — the first paid vacation bill in United States history – was sponsored by Democratic Congressman Alan Grayson, a freshman from Florida’s eighth congressional district. My friend and colleague John de Graaf has been working actively for this bill with his organization and other leaders in the field, including author and consultant Joe Robinson and William J. Doherty, Ph.D., director of the Citizen Professional Center at the University of Minnesota. The Paid Vacation Act of 2009 is a modest proposal that would give one week to workers in firms with at least 100 employees after one year of employment, with incremental increases over time.

At the press conference on May 21, five experts in the field, myself included, spoke in support of the legislation. “As an economist, I want to emphasize that the economic costs of paid vacation included in the bill are small relative to the sizable economic benefits,” said John Schmitt, senior economist at the Center for Economic and Policy Research. In my remarks, I mentioned my travels around the country in which I find people — regardless of race, gender, socioeconomic position and geography — are always clamoring for more time. I also cited a study showing that Americans are increasingly isolated from each other, and this is killing us.

Studies show vacation time is essential for your health. “People who don’t take regular vacations are far more likely to suffer from heart disease or depression,” said John de Graaf. “It’s also essential to family bonding and provides the strongest memories many adults have of their childhood and family.”

Vacation-leave advocacy is just one of several time-related issues that de Graaf is addressing. Back in 2002, together with several colleagues, he founded the group “Take Back Your Time (www.timeday.org),” which has been promoting such policy initiatives as paid parental leave, paid sick days, and other work hour-reduction options for workers that protect their jobs and healthcare benefits. “Such policies give real choice to people, allowing them to live more simply,” he says. “The great naturalist John Muir once said that ‘compulsory education is a good thing but compulsory recreation might be even better.’ I think he had something there.”

Forbes magazine recently ran a story about the world’s happiest countries. The United States didn’t even make the top ten. One thing that characterized all the countries that were selected as exemplars was attention to work-life balance and a strong focus on leisure time. Not coincidentally, all of these countries were also doing well economically. We need to re-think our possession obsession and devote ourselves to connecting with others and nature. This will help restore our health and the planet.

Wanda Urbanska
Wanda Urbanska, producer/host of the American television series Simple Living with Wanda Urbanska, promotes environmental stewardship, thoughtful consumption, community involvement and financial responsibility. The daughter of a Polish Nazi-era refugee father, she is a graduate of Harvard University, who went on to a successful writing career in Los Angeles. She is the author of six books, and her work has appeared in such publications as The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, The Chicago Tribune, Vogue and Glamour. She hosted the PBS primetime special, Escape from Affluenza, and has appeared on such programs as the Today Show, CBS This Morning and Oprah, and was heard on NPR’s All Things Considered.

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