Do Americans deserve more vacation time?

We work the longest hours and enjoy the least time off

By Nicholas Nehamas

It’s summer, and that means time for a vacation. But if you live in the United States, your time off

Having a vacation on the Spanish island of Mallorca (Reuters/Enrique Calvo)

may be short. Americans take an average of only 12 paid vacation days a year, according to a study by the travel website Expedia.com. That’s not a lot compared with the rest of the world.German Chancellor Angela Merkel might complain about lazy Greeks, but Germans receive 30 days of paid vacation every year, 40 if you count public holidays. That’s pretty much the trend in Europe: the Danes get 30 days, Italians take 28, the Belgians average 25.6, France enjoys 25, the British get 24.6 days of holiday, etc.

Here at Latitude News, we wondered whether our fellow Americans thought the gap in vacation time between the U.S. and Europe was fair. So, on a beautiful sunny day, we headed down to Post Office Square in Boston, where busy workers gather for their lunch break. Do you think you get enough vacation time, we asked? Here’s what Bostonians – and one vacationing Irishwoman – had to say.

Dana Morss, Foreman/iron worker for Union Local 7 (Yiping Yang)

Construction workers like Dana Morss have it worse than anyone: they don’t get a single day of paid vacation. If they want to take the day off and bring their family to the beach, they can. They just won’t receive a paycheck for that day. No work, no pay. That’s because, unlike the Europe Union, the U.S. federal government doesn’t require companies to provide paid time off. In America, a vacation is a privilege. In Europe, it’s a  right.

Morss was the only person we talked to who doesn’t get any vacation time, although others said they had seen theirs reduced as co-workers are laid off. Those who do have vacation time said they would like more. Many described feeling overworked and stressed out. They wanted more time to rest and relax with their families. And as long as management made sure everyone wasn’t out of the office at the same time, few people believed productivity would suffer.

But is it government’s job to force companies give their employees time off? Not everyone thought so, including David Orlinoff, a consultant.

David Orlinoff, independent consultant (Yiping Yang)

There’s something counter-intuitive going on here. You might think that the more vacation time you take, the less productive you’ll be. In fact, the opposite is true.

The accounting firm Ernst & Young has found that people are actually more productive if they get more time off. That made sense to a lot of the people we talked to. “When you work all day you have family issues, household issues,” says Audrey Harrington, an administrative assistant. “You’re running around all day. We’re busier than we ever have been before. If people have more time to pay their bills, do their food shopping, take their kids to sporting events, they will be more productive.”

Americans put in more hours than any other workers in the industrialized world, even more than the hard-working Japanese, who get around 25 days of paid vacation. Why do Americans work so hard? In the eyes of Rita Gorby, a visiting Irishwoman, it’s all about “the almighty dollar.”

Even some Americans agreed. “We’re a very materialistic society,” says Brad Johnston, a salesman for a tech start-up. “We find happiness in wealth.”

Are Americans so eager to make money that they would sell back vacation days to their employers? In China, that’s a common practice. You can receive three times your normal wages for working during your holiday (Chinese get a minimum of ten paid vacation days plus 11 public holidays). But only one person we talked to in Boston, a law school teacher who said she was looking for more work in general, would be willing to trade in her precious time off for extra cash. “I have more time off than I need right now,” says Hillary Steinbrook.

As much as Americans love to rag on Europe, it seems working people think Europeans are a step or two ahead of us on vacation time. “A lot of people are stressed out here in America. They work all the time. It’s crazy.” says Jason Oteri, a surgical technician. “I think it’s good over there in Europe. Everyone’s happy. The quality of life might be a little better.”

Of course, that’s only if you have a job. As unemployment soars amid riots in Spain and Greece, it’s pretty clear many Europeans are deeply unhappy with the state of their economies. But at least they have more time to contemplate their gripes.

Jack Rodolico produced the audio for this piece.