Americans get a raw deal

Get Paid to Pursue Happiness

The United States needs to drastically overhaul its time off system for all workers.

A week ago, Wednesday, March 31st, I was off from work. It was a state holiday in California (as well as in Arizona, Michigan, and Wisconsin). For those states, March 31st is César Chávez Day and public offices are closed. The holiday honors the labor organizer and Latino rights activist César Chávez, perhaps known best for the Delano grape strikes he organized with Dolores Huerta in the late 1960s.

Two days later, on Friday, many of my friends, especially those in finance-related fields, enjoyed a half day and early start to their weekend for Good Friday. The New York stock market closed at noon, as it does every Good Friday.

There is not another federal holiday in this country until Memorial Day, which falls this year on May 31st. Other states may enjoy a holiday or two of their own, such as Patriots Day on April 19th in Massachusetts, but there is no nationwide holiday between President’s Day in February and Memorial Day in May.

In fact, the United States enjoys just ten public holidays annually. Employers are required to offer a total of zero days of paid leave to their employees. Except for specific scenarios outlined in the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), your employer is not legally obligated to offer you any time off at all.

Furthermore, while most employers offer full-time workers some sort of vacation accrual system, with no legal support backing each employer’s program there is no requirement for an employer to grant time off requests. I have friends who will lose dozens and dozens of hours of paid time off (PTO) because their employer does not carry over PTO from year to year and the corporate culture at their work place punishes those who dare to try and make use of their hard-earned vacation time.

As I cautiously make plans for joyous post-vaccine reunions with loved ones whose faces have been nothing but a flicker on my Zoom panels for over a year, I realized that, for the first time in my life, I have to account for everyone’s PTO balances while planning my trips. I have worked summer jobs since I was 15, but landscapers and ice cream stands rarely offer paid leave to their diligent student employees. So while being paid for a Friday I will spend hanging out with my friends is going to feel fantastic, the downside is that my full-time employer can and will let me go if they feel as though I take too much time off.

This is to say nothing of the circumstances of my friends, the majority of whom are working for private, non-unionized employers. While as a state employee I benefit from collective bargaining and paid state holidays, my friends who have been fortunate enough to find full-time employment after graduating during a pandemic are at the mercy of draconian corporate leave policies and micromanaging bosses who take time off requests as a personal affront.

As I planned potential trips this summer, I became curious about how the United States compared to the rest of the world in terms of vacation time. The discrepancy is worse than I expected.

A graphic showing how much fewer vacation days Americans get than other countries around the world
Photo credits to Statista

Firmly “Western” countries, such as Australia, the United Kingdom, and Spain, enjoy 20 days or more of statutorily required paid leave. The entire European Union mandates 20 days off, minimum. And these time off balances are in addition to the public holidays in those countries. Even nations known for their vicious work cultures, such as Japan and South Korea, are afforded a double-digit number of paid days off each year.

In the US, the only guaranteed leave most people will take advantage of is parental leave. The FMLA requires larger employers (covering only 60 percent of workers in the country) to grant 12 weeks of unpaid time off following the birth of a child.

Three months. That’s it.  

When your newborn is three months old, the government has determined that you are ready to leave your child and return to work. Not only are we one of the only countries that charges parents thousands of dollars in medical bills for a childbirth, we are the only country classified as “high-income” by the World Bank to not offer paid maternity leave.

A graphic showing how the United States ranks last in government-mandated paid leave for new parents.
Photo credits to Pew Research Center

Again, let’s compare the United States’ policy to a smattering of nations around the world. The smallest amount of paid leave given to new parents (meaning both parents, not just mothers) on this chart is approximately two months in Ireland. Countries as diverse as Estonia, South Korea, and Costa Rica require employers to grant double digit weeks of leave to new parents. And, as with the general PTO requirements I outlined above, these amounts are the statutory minimum, meaning employers can and do offer more time off in these countries.

The lack of PTO and paternity leave requirements does real, quantifiable damage to families across the United States.

Human Rights Watch, an organization best known for documenting state-sponsored oppression and crimes against humanity, found that the lack of a federal parental leave policy in the US is so damaging that workers without access to parental leave face “grave health, financial, and career repercussions”. Their 90 page report outlined cases of postpartum depression, babies missing immunizations, workers going into debt, and even women and same-sex couples who had their entire careers ruined after being denied access to parental leave.

Similarly, scholarly research has found over and over the wide-ranging benefits of taking vacations. By vacations, the research is referring to time off from work, not an all-inclusive stay in the Maldives. Workers who have access to time off are happier, healthier, and report higher overall levels of satisfaction with their jobs. Vacation time also recharges workers, leading to higher productivity, meaning that even from a capitalist perspective, giving PTO is smart policy.

As the pandemic hopefully subsides and we as a nation reflect on what lessons we learned, the power of time off should now be plainly obvious. Many workers left their PTO untouched for all of 2020 as they followed social distancing guidelines. However, other workers, in roles ranging from nurses to grocery store clerks, worked more than ever over the last 13 months.

The societal roles that are truly essential were laid bare for all to see in March of 2020. Any worker whose job was deemed essential might read a piece like this extolling the benefits of increased PTO and respond that they cannot take extensive PTO or society falls apart. This is a valid point. 

I am thankful that every 911 operator, for example, does not decide to take time off on New Year’s Eve as drunk driving and firework accidents occur with alarming frequency. To compensate these people whose jobs must be 24/7/365, any new federal PTO law should mandate extensive bonus pay to the essential workers of the world for working on holidays or not making use of their full slate of time off. Double time feels like an appropriate minimum pay increase for holiday work.

But as the pandemic demonstrated, the overwhelming majority of us do not work in jobs so essential that they cannot pause for a few days at a time. The United States must copy the rest of the world and offer all workers expanded time off. Parents (both mothers and fathers) must be guaranteed extensive time off to bond with the new human they have welcomed into the world. New parents, especially women and same-sex couples, must also be protected from discrimination or retaliation by their employer.

After all, the pursuit of happiness was one of the three core principles underlining our independence from England, and I personally would like to pursue some happiness with my friends and family this summer, free of anxiety that I could lose my job for making use of my earned time off.

Ben Testani
Ben Testani is a freelance writer and young professional. Though originally from Central New York, he is currently based out of Sacramento, California. He enjoys basketball, noise-cancelling headphones, and the National Parks Service.
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