The American Holiday

When I first heard of The USA’s vacation policy from a friend, I actually didn’t believe it. “Company’s can choose how much vacation time you get. And if you don’t use it they don’t have to pay it off when you leave.”

“What?” I said in shock. This felt incomprehensible to me. How is this even legal? How can the world’s largest economy have such terrible vacation laws? Surely he doesn’t know what he was talking about.

But how wrong I was. Not only was it completely legal for a company to not offer any paid time off, but the US is the only industrial country/advanced economy that does not require companies to provide any paid vacation time to their workers.

This is not to say that companies don’t provide any paid time off – 77% of Americans working for privately owned companies got some paid time off each year, with the average around 10 days (some including sick leave and some that don’t).

But what’s even more alarming? 42% of Americans didn’t even take any vacation days in 2014. In comparison (though not quite 1:1 study), only 11% of Aussies don’t take annual leave.

Why is this?

Many Americans I’ve spoken to have expressed one similar sentiment – you can’t take too much time off because you won’t look like a hard working employee and you’ll fall behind. Why is this a concern? Well, your contract might not be renewed, or you might not get that promotion, or people will just think you’re a slacker. In fact, one person I spoke to said “if you’re in a high pressure position, the fear of being replaceable is not too far-fetched.”

So it seems that Americans are afraid to take vacation time. As one journalist put it, “The Great Recession isn’t far from our minds, and vacation doesn’t fill an empty belly.” And this fear also leads to apathy regarding holiday pay. Americans didn’t even bother fighting for a formal response from the White House about formal paid time off.

But possibly a worse outcome of all of this? Many Americans don’t travel overseas.

In 2009 only 5% (15.5 million) of USA’s 311 million residents traveled overseas for either business or leisure. This means that those that are taking vacations are travelling locally it seems. An article in the New York Times reported “By and large most Americans will travel by land in 2015, making 870,526,000 trips” compared to air travel which only makes up 154,021,000 trips. And where do Americans travel by land? Mostly within America, but if we’re talking internationally? Well, to its neighbouring countries, Mexico and Canada, with cultures arguably not too foreign to Americans already.

And it’s not just by a small amount – over 20 million trips were taken to Mexico in 2014, and over 12 million to Canada. The next most popular destination outside of the US? The UK, at a meager 2.5 million trips. Compared to California alone? Over 134 million.

So then, what does this mean for this “great” nation? With about 38% of Americans holding valid passports in 2014, Americans as a whole aren’t seeing the world. And you know how I feel about travel! Despite the incredible people I’ve met (most who have traveled overseas), there are many more Americans who know nothing beyond the borders of the USA – this is the American way, and it’s the only way.

So what does this mean for you? Well no matter who you are and where you’re from (but especially if you’re American), use your paid time off, and leave your work in the office. Holidays reduce stress. Remember, no-one ever said they took too many vacations this year. I think.

What’s the fix? I don’t know. I’m sure there are plenty of other issues at play here that I’m not aware of. Would mandating vacation days federally help? Maybe. But this is the USA we’re talking about, and things move slowly, and people don’t care enough about this issue to make it happen.

Would changing work cultures help? Instead of “sick” days being “work from home” days and paid time off being something you should only use sparsely, bosses and executives could change the culture of their business. They themselves should to take more leave in the year, and allow employees the opportunity to not only take leave, but make sure they feel like they can leave their work for a few weeks and go somewhere.

But somehow I feel that this won’t be enough. Maybe it’s an entirely different issue -could it be the job market itself? With manufacturing now mostly outsourced, many Americans aren’t earning what they used to. In fact, 20% of Southerners live below the poverty line. So with jobs viewed as such a precious thing, perhaps it’s not as easy as I had hoped to turn things around.



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