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.