Hardly Anybody Gets Veterans Day Off From Work, And It's Too Bad

Lack of paid time off is a feature of America's unforgiving labor market.

Veterans Day is a federal holiday honoring those who serve in our country’s armed forces ― and yet most people don’t get the day off from work. 

It’s a paid holiday for only 19% of American workers, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Just 11% of private-sector workers get the day off. 

Lack of time off is an actual problem for American workers, who put in more hours per year than their counterparts in any other developed nation, according to a new report by the People’s Policy Project, a left-wing think tank. 

As workers in other developed countries have won more paid time off over the past several decades, American workers have lagged behind. The U.S. is the only country with no national requirement that firms give employees vacation days, and the average American worker gets only eight paid holidays per year. 

“Across almost all countries, the richer a nation is, the less time its workers spend on the job,” journalist Ryan Cooper writes in the report, which uses data from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. “Intuitively, this makes sense: the more output a nation’s economy is producing per unit of labor, the more free time workers can have.”

If the U.S. had followed the global trend, then according to our economic output, Cooper reckons, American workers should be clocking in 269 fewer hours — or about 33 fewer days — per year. 

The extra hours of labor reflect America’s “unusually brutal labor market,” Cooper writes. In addition to no law for paid holidays and no paid vacation, there’s no law for paid time off to deal with illness or child care, and insufficient support for the unemployed and aged. 

Most employers do provide paid vacation leave and holidays, though many workers are afraid to use their time off. Benefits vary by industry, with food service workers, for instance, far less likely to have access to paid vacations. Large employers must allow workers to take unpaid family and medical leave, but anything beyond that is just a perk.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, shorter work hours were a key demand of the American labor movement, which created weekends and the 40 hour week. But union membership has shriveled and labor leaders tend to demand higher pay and benefits rather than more time off. 

Cooper said the simplest way to give Americans more time off would be to add more holidays beyond the 10 official federal holidays that the government and some private employers observe. Start with new federal holidays in each of the four months that currently have none: March, April, June and August. 

Congress could enact the holidays through legislation and consider requiring 50% higher pay for employees who work those shifts as encouragement for employers to let them take the day off. Lawmakers who support the policy could describe it as a movement for more long weekends. 

Some GOP lawmakers would undoubtedly call the holiday agenda socialism. But 65% of Republicans said they supported mandatory paid vacation in a 2014 HuffPost/YouGov poll. Three-quarters of all respondents said they liked the idea of a vacation mandate. 

Veterans Day started out as Armistice Day in honor of the allied victory in World War I. Lawmakers changed it to a day honoring veterans after more wars piled up. It’s one of the least-observed U.S. holidays. More people (24%) get President’s Day off, which originally honored George Washington’s birthday. Many more people get Thanksgiving and Christmas off. 

“If we’re going to call it Veterans Day, then we’re disrespecting the troops by having people come into work,” Cooper said.