Why the US is one of only a few countries with no paid time off

If Araceli Torres worked anywhere in the European Union, she’d be guaranteed four weeks of paid vacation every year by law, the standard set in 1993, plus another eight to 10 paid holidays. If she worked in Brazil, Libya, Turkmenistan, or Oman, the law would allow her 30 days of paid vacation. In her home country of Mexico, she’d be entitled to six.

But Torres, 32, a single mother of two, works in a nail salon in the Bronx. Her legal guarantee? Zero.

In the past nine years, Torres, who works close to 50 hours a week at $11 an hour, says she has not had a single day of paid time off. “I have two kids. I’ve missed a lot of important time with them,” she said in an interview, speaking through a translator. “I wish I could turn back time. But I can’t.”

The United States is one of just a handful of countries — others include India, Pakistan, Suriname, and Papua New Guinea — that have no national policy guaranteeing workers paid annual leave. (It’s also among the few with no federal laws guaranteeing paid parental leave or paid sick days.) Any benefit offered to workers, like paid time off, is entirely up to the discretion of private employers.

US employers who offer time off give about two weeks on average — which is on the low end globally for industrialized nations. Close to one in four workers in the United States have no time off at all. Most of them are low-wage, hourly, or service workers like Torres.

In New York, this could soon change. Torres and about 800 other members of the New York Nail Salon Workers Association are lobbying for a bill before the New York City Council that would be one of the first legal guarantees of paid time off in the United States. The bill, which has been pushed by local politician Jumaane D. Williams since 2014, would guarantee workers at establishments with more than five employees 10 days of paid time off every year “for any purpose,” including vacation.

Under the legislation, an estimated 800,000 workers, including part-time and domestic workers who historically have been excluded from labor legislation, would accrue one hour of paid time off accrued for every 30 worked, up to a maximum of 10 days per year.

Mayor Bill de Blasio has been aggressively promoting the bill since January 2019, as he sought to position himself as a champion of workers’ rights in his failed presidential bid. He calls paid vacation the “sensible next step” for workers now that the city has passed paid sick and safe leave legislation guaranteeing paid time off for workers to recover from an illness or domestic violence or abuse, and raised the minimum wage to $15.

The state, meanwhile, has passed a paid family and medical leave law to help workers manage work and caregiving responsibilities. “It is a moral imperative to give hardworking New Yorkers the opportunity to take a personal day without fear of losing their job or paycheck,” de Blasio said through a spokesperson.

The bill is wildly popular — 80 percent of New Yorkers surveyed supported the idea, with 70 percent strongly favoring it. And while previous versions of Williams’s paid vacation bills languished in committee, de Blasio has repeatedly urged swift passage, suggesting in stump speeches and rallies that a vote would come before the end of the year.

Yet New York City businesses have been just as aggressively fighting the proposal. The chambers of commerce of all five city boroughs released a survey that found four out of five small businesses fear they’d have to lay off workers should the bill pass. Now a group of business leaders and labor advocates is meeting to hammer out differences, and plan to issue recommendations in January 2020.

The long fight for paid time off in America

Vehement opposition to giving workers the legal right to paid vacation, like a host of other worker-supportive policies, runs deep in America.

In 1910, more than 30 years after conservationist John Muir called for a national “law of rest,” President William Howard Taft suggested that vacations should no longer be reserved for the wealthy, and proposed that everyone should have a right to three months away from work every year so that they could continue on “with energy and effectiveness.”

Taft’s vacation idea went nowhere, even as paid time off began catching on in other countries. The Treaty of Versailles, which ended World War I in 1919, called for nations to regulate working time and rest periods. But American business leaders fought against government interference in their affairs. And, surprisingly, so did union leaders like Samuel Gompers, president of the American Federation of Labor.

At the time, labor leaders were steeped in an agrarian tradition of independence and self-sufficiency. Families, occasionally with the help of charity, were expected to shoulder the economic risks of sickness, unemployment, aging, and caregiving. Unions were focused on ensuring workers had wages high enough to provide economic security to weather these risks.

Gompers argued that employer- or government-provided benefits like paid vacation leave, paid holidays, retirement savings plans, and health, unemployment, and life insurance served only to “weaken independence of the spirit” — contributing to the sentiment that benefits like these were nonessential.

The Great Depression changed all that. By the 1930s, a number of European countries, pushed by local trade unions, began adopting national policies guaranteeing workers paid annual leave. And the economic devastation shifted union attitudes in the United States to favor employer or government-provided health and welfare benefits like paid vacations. Frances Perkins, Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Secretary of Labor, ordered her department to study paid vacations, with a goal of passing national legislation.

Perkins, who prized her own monthlong retreats to Maine every August, “was a great believer in paid vacation,” said Perkins biographer Kirstin Downey. “She wrote in her letters and memos and she talked frequently about how paid vacation is not just a goal, but a necessity, an essential component of healthy living for workers.”

But at a time when many Americans were out of work and starving, Perkins focused instead on shorter work hours, a minimum wage, and a ban on child labor. Rather than pursuing a national paid vacation policy, she supported unions’ new enthusiasm for negotiating for paid time off with employers as part of their contracts, Downey said. By the time Perkins’s left the Department of Labor in 1945, a third of the American labor force was unionized.

For the next three decades, the two weeks of paid vacation time offered by many private employers and negotiated in many union contracts in the United States kept pace with other advanced countries. But then trends started diverging. In 1970, the International Labor Organization called for a minimum of three weeks paid vacation every year, and workers in European countries began pushing for ever-longer periods of paid annual leave. Meanwhile, in America, unions lost power and wages began to stagnate.

Now many low-wage, service, hourly, and gig workers have no paid vacation time at all. And other Americans have the time, but don’t take it — or take their work along with them. In 2000, the travel company Expedia began tracking the number of unused vacation days American workers, in essence, gifted back to their employers in their annual Vacation Deprivation guide. (Americans left 653.9 million days of unused vacation on the table in 2018.)

Why Americans are so reluctant to take vacation

In recent years, a growing body of research has found a clear link between taking time off work and improved health, relationships, mood, productivity, and morale, while reducing stress, depression and chronic illness. In Sweden, where the entire nation takes the month of July off, researchers noted a steep drop in antidepressant use and an increase in what they called “collective restoration.” One study in the US of middle-aged men with a high risk for coronary heart disease found that vacations reduced their risk of mortality, and quite literally, saved their lives.

Lonnie Golden, a labor economist at Penn State, said in survey after survey, American workers tend to say that making more money is a higher priority than having access to more paid time off, unlike in Europe, where workers rate having more time off work as more important than making more money.

“There’s good reason for it — we don’t have the public sector paying for health care, transportation, education, and housing like many European countries do,” he said. In the United States, workers pay more out of pocket for those social welfare benefits. “So there’s true economic need for money to come first in America, and time second.”

Beyond that, Golden said, there’s always been an American discomfort with leisure and time off, and a cultural bias to display our commitment to work as a sign of status.

“So now we’re in a perfect storm,” he said, “We shy away from having a national paid vacation standard, while there are more and more low-wage jobs that aren’t covered by private employer policies. And, because of our bias toward work, the salaried people who do have paid vacation, but don’t feel at liberty to use it, wind up leaving it on the table.”

A public paid vacation policy, Golden and others argue, would not only cover a broader swath of workers, but force people to actually take the time they’ve earned. “A national standard might save us from ourselves,” he said.

So Golden and others have tried. They’ve gathered signatures. They’ve lobbied lawmakers in Congress. In 2009 and again in 2013, Sen. Alan Grayson, a Florida Democrat representing Orlando, home of Disney World, proposed a one-week paid vacation bill. Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders offered another version in 2015, calling for not less than 10 paid days of vacation.

The bills went nowhere.

In 2014 and 2015, Gael Tarleton, a Democratic lawmaker in Washington state, distraught by the rise in low-wage, contract and part-time work without any benefits, sought to pass a paid vacation law in the state. But she dropped the effort so as not to be a “distraction” as lawmakers pushed through a bipartisan paid family and medical leave and sick days bill in 2018. Still, she pushed for a hearing. “It allowed people to start talking again about the value of paid time off to spend time with our families,” she said. “And how it doesn’t always have to be when we’re sick.”

Lawmakers in Maine and Nevada passed laws this summer that initially were crafted as paid sick days bills that now guarantee workers one week of paid time off “for any reason,” which could include vacation.

In New York City, where the city council is poised to pick up where Frances Perkins left off 87 years ago, Speaker Corey Johnson said that while he supports the paid vacation bill, he wouldn’t commit to a timeline for a vote, hoping to work with both labor and business groups. “It is crucial we get the details right,” he said through a spokesperson.

Until then, Araceli Torres will keep working at the nail salon in the Bronx, a job she says she loves because it brings her customers joy, and keep lobbying for the city’s paid vacation bill. She doesn’t have big dreams for what she’ll do if it passes. “I just want to spend time with my children.” For her, that’s a dream enough.

Brigid Schulte is a journalist, author, and director of the Better Life Lab at the think tank New America.