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Vacation Policies in Europe and the USA

A recent report from the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, D.C. compared government policy on paid vacation time among OECD nations. No surprises here; the chart says it all:


A couple caveats here: the report's authors don't seem to have considered U.S. state law. I suspect that that more liberal U.S. states probably do provide mandated paid vacation, and it might be helpful to know which ones do. Nevertheless, as the authors correctly note, there's no federal regulation on the subject, so states are free to act as they please. As for Germany, the authors note: "[T]here is only one national public holiday, German Unity Day. Other public holidays are determined on the state level, and vary between 0 and 16."

Of course, American workers do get holidays. As usual, though, the amount of vacation you get will vary with your social power:

On average, private-sector workers in the United States have about nine days of paid vacation per year, plus about six paid holidays. . . . .  [P]art-time workers, low earners, and workers in small establishments (fewer than 100 workers) are less likely to receive paid vacation and paid holidays, and when they do, these workers receive fewer paid days off. Lower-wage workers are less likely (69 percent) than higher-wage workers (88 percent) to have paid vacations.

Mandatory paid vacation is a classic welfare-state policy. Policies like these serve at least three functions. First, they ensure that everybody gets some vacation. Second, they 'signal' that leisure time is an important social value and policy goal. As the report notes, most European employers actually go above the minimum requirements voluntarily. Third, they ensure that the gap between rich and poor in vacation time does not become too large.

In any society, the highly-qualified or well-connected have a lot of autonomy concerning how much they choose to work. Of course, many choose to work extremely hard, but they don't have to; they can bargain away money and prestige in favor of leisure time (or time with the family) whenever they wish. It's the less-qualified, 'interchangeable' workers that get the short end when there are no policies to protect them. Put another way, if you're a low-skilled employee in Europe, you're not more likely than an American low-skilled employee to get more than the legal minimum of paid vacation. But, as we see, that legal minimum is very different...