Edmund McCombs moved to Sydney six years ago — and has no plans to leave. It’s not just the beaches or the cafe-lined harbour that keeps the 33-year-old social sustainability manager Down Under. The Florida native hasn’t left because, well, his boss actually wants him to take vacation and enjoy life outside of work.
McCombs said his supervisor actively tracks vacation days not to make sure he doesn’t take too many, but rather to ensure he has regular breaks. What’s more, there are employees at the property and infrastructure company who are tasked with dreaming up ways to get workers out of the office and enjoying life.
This time-off-as-the norm culture was initially a shock to McCombs’s American sensibilities.
In Australia, he explained, “people leave and engage in their ‘real’ lives without fearing any repercussion for being away from the office.” That sentiment was a big change for him.
Australian workers are guaranteed 20 days of paid vacation under federal law — in addition to seven paid holidays. McCombs has travelled to Fiji, Western Australia and Florida in just the past year. When he worked in Atlanta six years ago at a trade association for the insurance and financial services industry he received just 10 days of paid vacation annually.
“I had to earn them in the first year and then I was able to use them after that,” he recalled. “But I was never allowed to take more than five days in a row.”
The no-vacation nation
The United States is the only developed nation that treats paid time off as a perk rather than a right. While countries like Austria, Germany, Italy and Spain each offer their citizens more than 30 days off a year in annual leave and paid holidays, the United States offers… zero.
Americans can thank the Fair Labor Standards Act for that. This relic from 1938 regulates maximum weekly working hours, overtime, minimum wage and child labour, but fails to mention paid time off. That means that decisions about payment for vacation, sick leave and federal holidays are up for negotiation between employer and employee.
Though many American companies gift their workers between five and 15 salaried days off per year, a recent study from the US-based Center for Economic and Policy Research found that nearly one in four private-sector workers doesn’t receive any paid vacation time.
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Bartender Carrie Stevens is one of them. The 31-year-old works between 38 and 45 hours a week at a brewing company in Charlottesville, Virginia, but said she doesn’t get a single paid sick day or holiday.
“Even if I did get paid vacation or sick days, if that pay was based on hourly wage, it would be minimal,” she said. Stevens recently got a raise from $2.13 an hour to $3.50, but makes the vast majority of her money in tips. (Minimum wage in the US is $7.25 per hour, but workers who earn tips can be paid less per hour, by law.)
In the six years she’s worked for the brewery, she figures she’s taken about five days off each year for vacations. She must ask months in advance for the time off, which she usually uses for short trips that she pays for with her savings.
“I can definitely feel it when I need a vacation because my patience and tolerance for our guests runs thin,” said the career bartender.
A culture of fear
Even for those Americans who do receive paid time off, actually taking it can prove to be a Herculean task. The overall culture of the American workplace is one where people often feel that if they dare to request vacation days, they will be stigmatised as lazy or disloyal. Many leave their earned time off on the table each year. Experts say this serves to create an imbalance in the work-life equation, rarely seen in other advanced economies.
An eye-opening survey released by careers website Glassdoor.com in April found that the average American employee who received paid time off last year had used only half of it.
Some 28% of workers told Glassdoor they feared falling behind in their work, while 17% feared losing their job. Another 19% said they didn’t take long vacations because they wanted to have an edge over the competition for a promotion.
“It’s clear the word ‘vacation’ among employers and employees doesn’t mean what it did in the past,” noted Rusty Rueff, a career and workplace expert at Glassdoor.
Edmund McCombs moved from Florida to Sydney, Australia, six years ago. (L Venegas)
The long fight to change US law
Every now and then, a legislator in the US will champion the cause of guaranteed paid time off. Florida Congressman Alan Grayson has taken that mantle several times.
The Democrat believes job-related stress contributes to absenteeism, a lack of productivity and health issues, with a toll of $344 billion annually in lost revenue for businesses. He introduced a bill in the House of Representatives in 2013 nicknamed the Paid Vacation Act that, among other things, aims to require companies with more than 100 workers to provide one week of paid annual leave to full-time employees.
The Paid Vacation Act has languished in committee for more than a year. A similar Grayson-sponsored bill in 2009 failed. Every federal employee who voted on that bill — his fellow representatives — received a month off in paid vacation.
While some companies in the US do buck the no-vacation nation trend, offering more generous time off to employees, or even requiring staff to take days off, congressmen are among the few Americans granted a number of days off on par with virtually every other advanced economy.
“If I had never left the US, the concept of month-long vacations would have never entered my realm of thinking,” McCombs, the Florida native who relocated to Sydney said. “But in Australia, it doesn't feel cutting edge — it feels normal and expected.”