A good book, a beach and a hammock: this is the life.
A good book, a beach and a hammock: this is the life.

In Tanzania this summer, I had a stimulating conversation with an Irish woman who had taken a break from her teaching job to manage a resort in Zanzibar. When she discovered that I’d been in Tanzania for three weeks, she was in shock. “I thought Americans didn’t get much holiday time?”

“I work for a company that provides really good benefits in the hopes of retaining employees.” 

“Lovely. My American relatives come to visit us in Ireland and they only stay for six days. What’s the point? Stay home! There’s no time!” Imagine this said with a delightfully animated Irish accent.

“I know.”

“Why don’t Americans fight for more time off?”

I gave a heavy sigh and answered, “I don’t even know where to begin.”

A few months before my trip, Jack Cafferty of CNN asked in a short essay, “Why don’t most Americans take all their vacation time?

Personally, I don’t feel I have enough vacation time. In fact, I have a Pinterest board titled, “I need more vacation time.

The article sourced a recent study that found “57% of working Americans had unused vacation time at the end of last year. “ Reasons given for this varied: some feel they have too much work to afford to take time off, others are afraid to take time off for fear of returning jobless and some just feel they can’t afford to do anything.

There was a time when I worked for a large insurance company as a contractor (because they were too cheap to hire me and many others full-time; of course, the execs got nice fat bonuses most years and they can afford shiny commercials with a celebrity endorser). I was only a few years out of college and didn’t have enough saved to afford to take unpaid time off. Even calling in sick wasn’t an option. No work, no pay. So, I get it. But, I didn’t like it. Working days on end with no break in sight. At a job I hated. With no health, dental or vision insurance and a micro-managing mid-level boss spying on everyone’s move. Another who kept calling me by the name of another black girl. I needed a break. We all do. Taking time off can have a beneficial impact on our physical and mental health, as well as our productivity at work. While according to the study, the average American employee gets 13 paid days off, the United States doesn’t mandate it (and I’m not sure how I feel about government intervention in this realm).

Costa Rica was REALLY good for my soul
Costa Rica was REALLY good for my soul

However, according to CNN Money the UK mandates employers give employees at least 28 paid days off, France decrees 25 and Japan 20. If vacation time is good for the body, good for the soul and good for the business, why don’t Americans fight for vacation time?

Cafferty’s question generated a (mostly) healthy debate.

Patrick from Oregon said,

“Many who work making minimum wages or near it are unable to afford a vacation. heck we can barely afford to buy gas to get to work.”

A more cynical MnTaxpayer commented,

“Because most corporate drones think they are more important then[sic] they really are.”

Quite a few chalked it up to our strong American work ethic. Guy Williams summed up the recurring themes nicely,

“Reasons: (1). Americans, for the most part, have very strong work ethics. (2). We fear losing our jobs if we aren’t at our desk every day other workers see our absence and maneuver for an opening. (3). We barely keep our heads above water with the work load we have; setting it aside for 2 weeks or longer means an unconquerable mountain of backlog when we return. That’s why we don’t take vacations.”

On Friday, CNN Money posted a somewhat related article: “One in three U.S. workers has no paid sick days” which similar to the vacation post received a large number of responses. This time some of the responses were a little sharper in tone.

J. Medford replied,

“I live in a 3rd world Caribbean Country and we have that right…America is weird.”

To which Burns8282 responded,

“Says the guys in the 3rd world country. Ill take the American work ethic and the title of most powerful country in the world.”

Ouch! (As of this writing the response had received 6 positive votes, 14 negative votes.)

In an unrelated comment, Waytooold2 chimed in,

“when your[sic] worried about being outsourced you don’t worry about sick days”

The eye-rollingly named liberlmedia added,

“They should move to Europe if they want paid vacation.”

Others worried about the increase in malingerers (one woman worried about an uptick in drunkards taking the day off to nurse hangovers). However, many were sympathetic to the plight of those without paid sick days. As Nick Knight commented,

“America, slowly becoming a right wing toilet.”

And the battle between the 1% & the 99% continues as Madisontruth stated,

“Welcome to the new normal. The 1% who control the game board see us all as pawns. This is why government intervention is necessary.”

Why don’t Americans have as much time off as other countries? Is it a strong work ethic? Is it that we’re pawns in a game played by a few, dazzlingly wealthy people in charge? Are we just so used to it that it never occurs to us to ask for more? Even when people do take vacation, some end up working anyway!

Paris, je t'aime
Paris, je t’aime

I don’t know what the answer is. What I do know is that I choose to live my life with respect to my future self. When I make important decisions, I ask myself: will I feel it was worth it; will I feel good about it? If not, it’s probably not the right decision. When I look back on my life, I don’t want to lament all the time I spent not making the most of it, not enjoying myself, not doing something meaningful. As I lay on my deathbed, I surely will not regret spending too much time working as I reflect on my life choices. I work hard during work hours, I play during play hours. When I’m on vacation, don’t call me and I’m not checking work emails.

Of course, it’s not that black and white. I’ve progressed well in my career. I have chosen to work in a field where the smart employers – as in employers that realize employees are their best asset –  fight over employees by dangling tantalizing benefits in our faces. I have the option of saying “Hellllll to the no” to jobs with shit benefits. But, that could change: I could lose my job, the debt ceiling could finally crush us and work “perks” like sick days and vacation time could disappear. However, I’ll do my best to live a life to love and in any case, liberlmedia has a good point about moving to Europe…I did love France when I visited.

As far as we know, we get one life to live and I want to enjoy the hell out of this one!

What Do You Think?

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  • Heidi
    January 28, 2013

    Don’t get me started…. but then again that is one of the main reasons I moved to Europe. Just a note on your UK time off policy. That included bank holidays. Thus, we have 8 bank holidays (9 last year because of the royal wedding) and 20 holiday days that are legally required – although again – only if you are an employee – not contractor or otherwise. However, it also applies if you are part-time, which I didn’t know until recently – so that’s cool.
    Our 8 bank holidays is about the same most US companies give in holidays – at least it was exactly the same when I was in the US. The nice thing about them though is that they are spread more evenly throughout the year, unlike in the states.
    Come on over Keisha…. we’d love to have you!!! (like you didn’t know that already!)

    • thegirlnextdoorisblack
      January 28, 2013

      Thanks for clarifying. 20 minimum days is still a lot more than most of us get. That’s awesome! I think, unless I just really can’t take it anymore, I’m here at least while our current President is who he is. I have no idea who we’ll get in 2016. Scary.

  • Laura
    January 19, 2013

    Perhaps our generation will be the one to change this 2-weeks nonsense. Who came up with that number anyway? Even with my new position, I only get 10 paid days off, to be used as sick, personal, or vacation days. It frustrates me to no end.

    • thegirlnextdoorisblack
      January 22, 2013

      Yeah, that’s rough. 🙁 Do you get more time off with seniority? Its just crazy that out of 52 weeks in a year, you only get two weeks off to do what you like. Two weeks! God forbid someone gets the flu or any other kind of illness that takes one out of commission for weeks!

  • cs201142
    January 14, 2013

    The only way I’ve gotten extended time off in the past is to quit or involuntarily leave a job, go off and travel and come back and bank on getting another before I ran out of money. I had 2 months off in 2007, 3 months off in 2009 and a month in 2010. It was awesome and I don’t regret any of it, but that’s probably because it worked out but I did some really crappy work to bridge the gap and had a scare in 2007 where I did run out of money a few days before I picked up contract work. Now I’ve got a job where I have time but too much work to leave but I’m scheming for a way to take two solid weeks off this summer. I will do it!

    • thegirlnextdoorisblack
      January 15, 2013

      Good luck to you! I think it’s really cool that you took time off to enjoy yourself. I have to admit that I am too scared to be without a job. Mental handcuffs. 🙁

  • elizainhollywood
    January 14, 2013

    Well said my friend! My company recently announced “take what you need vacation policy” as in no set time. Some employees actually complained because the idea of not having limits was so foreign. I feel like when I’m well rested and able to enjoy free time and travel, I’m a much better employee. Unfortunately, many Americans live in constant fear of job loss and some even “bank” vacation time in case they need to cash out in case of unemployment.

    • thegirlnextdoorisblack
      January 14, 2013

      Whoa! I don’t even know what I would do with that kind of vacation policy! I’m curious to hear how that works out in practice!

      It’s never occurred to me to bank PTO. I’m too busy trying to figure out how I can maximize my days off to go on all the trips I want to take!