The satirical publication The Onion recently featured an older piece of theirs, “180 Trillion Leisure Hours Lost To Work Last Year.” The joke is that the 180 trillion leisure hours are supposed to represent every hour that Americans work. But there’s a more serious point that we can make from this premise about workers in the United States and how much paid time they get off from their jobs.
In No Vacation Nation Revisited, CEPR researchers Rebecca Ray, Milla Sanes, and John Schmitt found that, of 21 rich countries (16 European countries, Australia, Canada, Japan, New Zealand, and the U.S.), the U.S. was the only country that does not require employers to provide workers with paid vacation (also called paid annual leave), and one of seven that does not provide workers with paid holidays.
Despite this lack of guaranteed paid vacation or holidays, the average worker in the U.S. is still provided 16 paid leisure days off a year (vacation and holidays); in contrast, the average legally required amount of paid days off for the other 20 countries sampled was just over 27 days. (In fact, of the countries sampled, the average U.S. paid leisure time of 16 days would only meet the legal requirement in one country, Japan.)
If we use the difference of 11 days between the U.S. and the other countries, we can calculate how many hours of paid leisure time American workers lose to their employers each year. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that for May 2015, there were about 149 million people categorized as “employed” in the U.S., 18.5 percent of whom work part-time. (We’ll assume that part-timers in other countries get the same amount of days off as other workers, and that part-timers in the U.S. work an average of 29 hours a week.) That comes to 12.4 billion hours of leisure time that American workers lose to their employers each year, or 1.6 billion eight-hour days.
It’s important to note that the average of 27 days for the other rich countries probably understates the average amount of paid time off that workers in these countries get. For example, it’s likely that some employers provide more paid leisure than the legal minimum. The quality of time off from work in other countries may also be better than in the U.S. Several countries require more vacation time for younger or older workers, those that have been at their employer for a certain amount of time, shift workers, and those that perform community service. Others even require that employees be paid more than their standard rate of pay during their time off, and some have policies that encourage or require workers to take vacation. And because there is a legal requirement for employers to provide this time off, it’s likely that workers feel more comfortable taking their alloted leisure time, too.
Even though the U.S. averages 16 days of paid vacation and/or holiday time per worker, almost one in four Americans has no paid vacation time or paid holidays off. The lack of legally required paid leisure time hits low-wage, part-time, and small business workers the hardest; these workers often receive no paid time off or a modest amount compared to other Americans. A legal requirement for paid vacation days and for paid holidays in the U.S. would help American workers recover many hours of lost leisure time each year, close the leisure-time gap between the U.S. and other rich countries, and help ensure that low-wage, part-time, and small business workers—those most marginalized—are guaranteed paid time off. There are spill-over benefits for the economy as well: more leisure time is associated with lower inequality, leads to greater employment, and helps the environment.