Vacation frustration

July 30, 2007

“180 Trillion Leisure Hours Lost To Work Last Year,” read a recent headline in the satirical newspaper the Onion. The story was fake news, which is the Onion’s specialty. But at least one advocacy group appears to be taking its reverse logic seriously. Its aim: Less work, more leisure.

Leaders of the Seattle-based Take Back Your Time challenge “the epidemic of overwork, overscheduling and time famine that now threatens our health, our families and relationships, our communities and our environment.”

Their remedy? Congress should mandate a minimum of three weeks paid vacation for all workers.

The campaign comes on the heels of a study by the Center for Economic and Policy Research, a liberal-leaning Washington think tank, that found the United States ranks dead last among the world’s 21 richest countries in the number of guaranteed days off for workers. The study found that one in four American workers do not receive any paid vacation or paid holidays, especially employees in lower-wage and part-time jobs and those who work for small businesses.

Government-guaranteed time off? Be careful what you wish for.

French workers are pampered with an average of 36 vacation days a year on top of 35-hour workweeks and a generously mandated potpourri of leisure-enhancing benefits. Nice work if you can get it. But lots of people can’t get it: Unemployment in France has been running as high as 9 percent in recent months and productivity has chronically lagged.

After years of saying “non, non” to the ambitious American-style work ethic, the French elected President Nicolas Sarkozy, who campaigned on a call for his countrymen to work harder. Critics rapped his ambitions as “too American,” but he won anyway.

U.S. employers do want happy workers. Four out of five American employers offer paid vacations, according to the latest survey by the Society for Human Resource Management. Just as workers compete for the best jobs, employers compete for the best workers, whether with cash or with vacations and other benefits.

Even when vacation days are offered, Americans don’t use them all. The average working adult American will fail to use three vacation days this year, according to the annual “vacation deprivation” survey by That’s down one day from last year’s survey.

Various surveys reflect changes in workplace and family needs. Fewer Americans take long vacation trips, for example, and more take their vacation time as long weekends rather than full weeks. Their reasons: higher gas prices, unceasing customer needs and the difficulties faced by two-income couples in coordinating their vacation schedules.

Lest people in small business think they’re slaving away while the boss is sunning in St. Barths, be assured they’re not. A little more than half of the small-business owners in a Discover Financial Services survey took no more than one week of vacation last year, compared with 36 percent of the general population. No wonder the French think Americans are workaholics.

Now get back to work.

Copyright © 2007, Chicago Tribune