The scandal of vanishing vacation time

From Berlin, New York Times correspondent Richard Bernstein reports on what he presents as the question of the day: Have Germans “become too addicted to leisure time for their own good?”

Bernstein seems genuinely agitated that German workers have come to view an annual six-week vacation plus an additional nine to 12 paid holidays as an “inalienable right.” He quotes approvingly Wolfgang Clement, the German minister of labor and economics, that Germans should “work more and vacation less.”

It seems Bernstein views the fact that German workers “actually work fewer hours per year than anybody else in the advanced industrial world – 1,557 hours a year in the former West Germany compared to … 1,900 in the U.S.” as a violation of the natural order.

Bernstein is clearly more comfortable with the working conditions of American workers, “who have no recent history of labor struggle or national traumas [but] simply see work as a good in itself.” And he proudly reports that U.S. workers simply don’t believe in “an inalienable right to an idle August and take pride in postponing retirement, or taking a second career [i.e., a second job].”

As a foreign correspondent, perhaps Bernstein has spent too much time abroad (recently retracing the epic Asian journey of a seventh century Chinese monk in a personal search for insight and philosophical serenity) that he’s simply out of touch with the real situation of the U.S. working class. But my guess is he doesn’t want to be bothered with the facts behind what Arthur Fromm of MSNBC.com calls “the scandal of America’s vacation time.”

“We Americans,” Fromm writes, “put up with the shortest, most miserably limited vacations of any advanced, prosperous nation.”

In a piece for ABC News entitled “Vacation Deprivation,” Catherine Valenti reports that American workers are legally entitled to zero vacation days. Even at the executive level, she says, “you’re seeing a complete burn-out of vacation time.”

In an article in The American Prospect, Robert Reich reports that “the average American worker gets two weeks paid vacation each year. That’s it.” Compared to the 25-30 vacation days a year for workers in the European Union, U.S. workers get 10.3 days a year. Reich writes: “Take a few extra days off on Christmas and New Year’s, a long weekend ... in the spring, and that leaves only a little more than a week’s vacation for the summer.”

For workers in the low-wage, part-time labor markets, who have come to represent a growing share of the labor force, a paid vacation is only a dream.

The closest thing to a “paid vacation” that many workers see are their periods of receiving unemployment compensation. Some 400,000-plus have been laid off each week for the past 21 weeks. But unemployment checks (while they last) are hardly enough to pay the bills, let alone pay for the Ultimate Journey across Asia in search of enlightenment.

And forget vacations in retirement. In its report, “The State of Working America 2002-03,” the Economic Policy Institute observed, “Only households at the very top of the income spectrum are likely to be adequately prepared for retirement. … For two out of five Americans, income from Social Security [and pensions] will replace less than half their pre-retirement incomes.” According to a recent report from CBS.com entitled “Seniors Scan ‘Help Wanted’ Ads,” roughly 4.5 million older Americans are currently working, many in minimum wage jobs. The head of the Alliance of Retired Americans, Edward Coyle, is quoted saying, “It’s a very demeaning way to live out [our] lives. … The baby boomers who are approaching retirement are quite frankly panicked.”

Looking through Bernstein’s elitist prism, however, seniors will presumably “take pride” in a full life of work, not like those lazy Germans.

The author can be reached at pww@pww.org