The Lucky Few With Generous Vacation Time: A Model For ALL American Workers!


As many of us already know, the United States of America is one of a handful of countries on the planet that don't have a federally mandated vacation policy. In almost all other nations, every worker receives a substantial number of days off every year. And they actually take it. Because there is no mandated minimum, the number of vacation days that US workers are permitted varies greatly from the select few who get as many as 6 to 10 weeks a year---an extreme rarity in our country, but very common in all European nations---to those who receive a 1 to 3 week "standard" or "traditional" US vacation, down to the least fortunate who work all year and get zero time off.

Unfortunately we've been witnessing a growing number of United States workers who are actually reluctant to take time off---even when they've earned it. Many of these folks receive 3 or more weeks of annual vacation but are concerned about actually using it. Why? Well, some worry that their bosses will possibly see "how well we're doing without them" when they're gone for an extended period. Some fear returning from vacation to a job demotion, salary reduction, or termination. Some fear that unscrupulous work rivals might try to take advantage of their time away to garner more power or influence at their expense. And some are just worried that their work will pile up to an unmanageable degree while they're gone and that they'll never get on top of it once they return. These stories are all symptoms of the same ailment: A country without any laws mandating vacation for workers, nor any that would protect them against any negative consequences or retaliatory actions resulting from their earned absence from their workplace.

Most US workers can relate to some or all of the above: either we get little or no vacation from our employer, or we're apprehensive about actually taking it if and when we get it. However, that doesn't describe all of us. There is a relatively small minority of folks who receive more days off than most of us. Among them are people who run their own businesses, professional athletes, educators, and people with seasonal jobs---like the many commercial fishermen I've met over the years, living in the Pacific Northwest. And because of the way their work calendar is scheduled, they have little or no fear about being away from their jobs, particularly if everyone among their working peers is gone as well.

To be clear, this doesn't necessarily mean that any of these people work fewer hours than most other people in the course of a year; it simply means they work fewer days. The nature of their work means they generally have a higher than average number of full days off that they can use as they choose. And good for them. Like everyone else, they knew what they were getting from the outset and they accepted the tradeoffs, such as more days off versus smaller paychecks. They understood the grim reality that many of these jobs require dangerous or backbreaking work in awful conditions. Some of these jobs require a very thick skin when bureaucrats, parents and politicians make an already challenging job that much more challenging. Some involve great risk and/or very slim odds of ultimate success.

In reality, there are few truly "easy" or "cushy" jobs, and the grass is indeed always greener when someone glimpses it from the outside. Almost all of us work very hard regardless of how paltry or abundant the compensation for our efforts. But after the "Crash of '08" and the very tough times that followed, I started to hear more people castigating anyone who seemed to be weathering the storm better than they were, particularly if their job offered such perks as a generous vacation policy. "Why are THEY getting it and not me? I work just as hard as they do---probably harder!" Some went further and implied that we should change things so that "THEY weren't allowed any more vacation time than the rest of us!"

Such expressions are understandable as we all unleash such emotions from time to time. We're only human. But this type of criticism seems petty and pointless. I started asking these critics one question: How would reducing someone else's vacation days benefit you? Would it increase YOUR vacation days, as if this was a zero-sum game with only a fixed number of days available that had to be doled out to all of us? What would this do to improve your work life? And if you can't provide an answer beyond some version of "At least it'll make me feel better, knowing that no one is getting a better deal than me..." then you might want to step back and look at all of this again.

If no one, in any job, was allowed more than the average 1 to 3 weeks a year, do you think that such an action would encourage your own employer to suddenly become MORE generous with vacation policy? Or less? If a certain segment of American workers was stripped of their vacation benefits, what would stop other employers from seeing if they could push the envelope even further, ratcheting back the number of free days that you and your co-workers can take as well?

We're all in this together. Someone else's generous vacation benefit didn't cause yours to be so paltry. Resenting others for what the free time they have---and implying that they should have less of it---will only have a negative impact on all of us, no matter who we work for. Rather than feeling angry or jealous or spiteful towards the people who've earned these vacation benefits, it would be more productive to see what they've attained as a model for the rest of us. This doesn't mean that ALL jobs should have several months off every year, as some people get, or that we should necessarily be trying to make one size fit all with vacation policy.

But at least SOME Americans are getting a good deal regarding vacation. These people represent possibility and innovation for the rest of us. They should be seen as the models to emulate, rather than something to be torn down and terminated. It's time to change the conversation and the mindset of our culture when we think about time off from work and the need to periodically "recharge our batteries" with paid vacation.

I believe that a growing number of us are getting this message and beginning to understand. Let's join together, supporting those who receive a generous vacation benefit---whatever they do for a living---using the standard at their workplace as an example of what might be possible, in some form, for the rest of us. Don't resent what the lucky people get. Ask for more vacation time for yourself--and all of us!

Steve Nesich is the Development Director of Take Back Your Time