Most Americans are stunned to learn that their vacation time, what little they have, is not guaranteed by law. Employers don't have to give you any time off, if they so choose.
And that's the case for one in four American workers who get zero vacation days, as detailed by the Center for Economic and Policy Research in their report "No Vacation Nation." Many other wage-earners in a lean-staffed, downsized economy have found that vacations exist more on paper these days than in reality.
The reason for all this is that the U.S. is the only advanced nation without a minimum paid-leave vacation law, and among only four other states, all tiny and poor (1), that don't have legal vacations. Meanwhile, our peers in the industrialized world -- Europe, Australia, Japan, Canada -- have well-established minimum paid-leave laws, four to five weeks in Europe, four weeks in Australia. Even Japan gets two legit weeks a year.
This may be about to change, at least for residents of Washington state, where minimum paid-leave vacation legislation has been introduced by state representative Gael Tarleton. Under the law, employees who have worked at least six months for a firm would be entitled to a week off after 18 months on the job, a week-and-a-half after 30 months, two weeks after 42 months of employment, and three weeks off after five years on the job. It would apply not just to full-time people, but part-timers over 20 hours too.
Though modest in scope, the legislation would give vacations in Washington something the rest of our holidays don't have: legitimacy. It would, in effect, legalize vacations in Washington and eliminate the illicit feeling that comes from their current non-statutorily-protected state.
"Vacations are a key part of jobs that support strong families and strengthen our middle class," Tarleton says. "Every worker needs time to rest to be productive. This is what an innovative economy requires to improve quality of life for everyone."
The research shows that vacations do help the economy and are medicine for some very costly ills, such as chronic stress, which is a factor in five out of the six leading causes of death (2), 75 percent of all doctor visits, and cost the U.S. economy $1 trillion a year, according to U.C. Irvine stress researcher Peter Schnall, co-editor of Unhealthy Work (3).
"Doctors say workplace stress is the new tobacco in our society," points out John de Graaf, co-author of Affluenza and executive director of Take Back Your Time, a group advocating healthier work-time policies. His new television documentary, "The Great Vacation Squeeze" (you can watch an excerpt here, shows how burnout and clogged arteries replaced the rite of summer.
Vacations have been shown to help burnout, the last stage of chronic stress, but it takes two weeks for that process to occur (4). You need real time to get the recuperative benefits. Time off restores crashed emotional resources, such as a sense of social support and mastery. It's no mystery why the vacation concept was originally conceived in the early part of the 20th century by American companies. Workers got a lot more done after they had a break to refuel.
I worked with de Graaf and Take Back Your Time on a national vacation initiative that led to the Paid Vacation Act of 2009, introduced by Florida Congressman Alan Grayson and reintroduced in 2013. It had no chance in today's gridlocked Congress, but the odds are much better at the state level. If Tarleton's minimum leave law passes (committee hearings are this Friday and the first vote should happen by mid-February), it would make Washington the first state to offer legally-protected vacations (though Puerto Rico already guarantees three weeks vacation time).
"Nearly every other country recognizes the value of vacation time for health and happiness," adds de Graaf. "If this bill succeeds in Washington state, maybe the rest of the U.S. will follow suit."
States have become the go-to place for everyday-life legislation, where voters are way ahead of the politicians, from medical marijuana to gay marriage to sick leave and the minimum wage. At a time when the minimum wage is reaching critical mass, minimum vacation standards are another protection long overdue, especially for low-income people, who make up the majority of folks who get no vacation time.
Despite the myth about vacations, that they'll sink productivity, the data shows they don't. Some Euro nations regularly come out more productive per hour than us, including Belgium, Norway, and Holland. Thousands of American firms with offices in four-week vacay Europe don't seem to be packing up and heading home. Ron Kelemon, a Salem, Oregon businessman who runs the H Group, told me that a three-week vacation policy was the best productivity tool he's ever seen. It doubled his company's revenues. Researchers have shown that the respite effect of a vacation increases performance, with reaction times going up 40 percent.
Having time to spend with family and friends, get recharged, and enjoy the fruits of your labor is something people of all trades, incomes and political views understand. A clear majority of voters, 69 percent in a 2008 Opinion Research Corporation poll, support minimum standards for vacation.
Tarleton's paid vacation proposal is a major step forward for a better quality of life for all working Americans.
1. Raising the Global Floor, Jody Heymann, Alison Earle
3. Peter Schnall, Marnie Dobson, Ellen Rosskam. Unhealthy Work. Baywood Publishing Company, 2009.
4. S.E. Hobfoll, Arie Shirom. Stress and Burnout in the Workplace: Conservation of Resources, Handbook of Organizational Behavior, 1993