Leave, American Style

View up the valley from Farleyer Lodge

View up the valley from Farleyer Lodge

So there I was in beautiful Scotland, the Highlands in view, snow-dotted hills just up the valley, my little holiday cottage all cozy and welcoming… Bliss awaited.

But back in the law office five times zones away, the program office that issues my contracts wanted some immediate answers tremaine_450x2-204x335to questions I’m responsible for answering. Yes, I had put in writing to them that I was out of office, and off duty. I had  named my replacement and provided his phone number.

My publicist chose my vacation week to send me the publicity plan for my August release, though it had been promised two weeks earlier. A PR plan usually involves thousands of words of blog posts, and hours and hours hunting through the manuscript for excerpts, each of which must be “exclusive” to the site that hosts it.

What’s an American to do?

All over Scotland, I crossed paths with people who were going “on holiday” to Turkey’s Black Sea coast (“So much safer than America, dear.”), popping over tour eiffelto Paris for some sightseeing and to brush up their youngest child’s French, or taking time to go hill walking in Cumbria. Mind you, these were cab drivers, check out ladies, and college students.

Here’s a little Harvard Study, comparing America’s approach to paid vacation to 20 other wealthy nations (not all of them European). In short, we suck at protecting our leisure time. In every other nation studied, the work year includes TWENTY DAYS minimum paid leave, for everybody–full-time, part-time–from day one, and that doesn’t include from 5-13 paid national holidays. France, Germany, Denmark, they all guarantee thirty days of paid leave.

We Can Do It! Rosie the RiveterWhat do we do? We don’t guarantee anything, we give less leave to the people who earn less even though many of them work very hard. But what about productivity? Surely, we work harder than other other guys, and we have more to show for it as a nation?

Right. In the first place, I couldn’t find productivity comparisons that were less than five years old (which struck me as really odd), and in the second, why is productivity the burning question” What about worker satisfaction? Quality of life (where we’re falling behind)? Happiness? Post-retirement standard of living?

hamsterTo a significant extent, Americans are the descendants of people who would work themselves to death rather than stay back in the Old Country putting up with an established religion or a lack of economic freedom. If we’re African American, we’re likely descended from people for whom brutal hard work was the only alternative to death. We’re Americans, we work.

Consider this: By some fine October day, you have already worked as many hours as your European, Australian or Canadian counterpart. What would you do if every year, in addition to your two weeks of paid vacation (assuming you get that), you also had TWO MONTHS more paid leave?

To one commenter, I’ll send a copy of Tremaine’s True Love (though not until about July 20th, the soonest I can get hold of one).

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41 comments on “Leave, American Style

  1. I’m lucky enough to work for a company that gives you 4 weeks paid PTO a year when you first start (pro-rated if you start in the middle of the year), 5 weeks after 3 years, 6 weeks when you hit 10 years, and 7 weeks after 25 years, and paid holidays. I’m hitting my ten year mark next year so I’ll earn 6 weeks, but if I had additional time, I would spend it relaxing and just enjoying things near my home by taking some short weekend trips.

    • You are VERY lucky–or you chose your employment situation wisely. When I was a new mom, I was laid off twice (two different companies). I could really, really have used the leave at the new jobs, but ended up going about four years without a vacation. ARGH.

  2. I have 4 weeks of vacation and 2 floating holidays.

    With extra vacation time, I would love to take a week and plan a trip. I’d love to travel to Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island with my husband. Or maybe take a week and travel up the coast of Maine and stay at some beautiful B & Bs. September would be the perfect month!

    I would save some time for some house projects. Hmm..the attic could use some cleaning as could the garage. And the garden could use a bit of an overhaul. And it would be nice to spend time with family and friends . . . Enjoying time together and sharing a meal or two.

    • That sounds like a summer to remember… The Gaelic language experts have solved a lot of etymological mysteries by studying Gaelic usage in Nova Scotia and PEI. Those pockets of language stood still, relative their Highland grandparents. I’d love to visit there too!

  3. I have an odd profession (conductor/musician)—I work like the blazes for several months at a time and then, nothing for a few months, then repeat. And I freelance as well.

    The months I have *off* I plan for the months I am intensely working. I am never really not working, it’s just a different kind of busy.

    If I ever had two months I was REALLY off, I would stay home for one of the months and enjoy my lovely house and garden and maybe putter around doing, ya know, *stuff*. The second month I would do something to further my career (I know, I know)and see if I could take a workshop or go to a convention or take lessons from someone different (I already study during the year) in a different part of the country or in Europe. And concentrate on doing that, instead of my usual life and usual worries. It would be fun!

    • You bring up another aspect of the non-US approach to leisure time: Room for self improvement, room to enjoy the house and yard, room to socialize with distant kin. A lot of soul-knitting has to happen outside the work place. Two weeks a year just isn’t enough!

  4. I think I got out of the work force just in time. It was becoming a real rat race. I had quite a bit of vacation by the time I retired, but that was because I had been working for so many years.

    If I had a couple of extra months of yearly off-time back then, I would have been doing a lot of the things I do now as a retired person – except that I would have been healthy enough paint my own house and do my own yard work. Would have had that garden I always dreamed of having – maybe (smile).

    There is no shame in hard work. The only shame is when many of these workers (especially part time low earners) are not paid enough to keep body and soul together. I’ve known people who have had to work two or three part time jobs – and few or no benefits at all. That’s just not right!

    • I’m working more than I want to, that’s for sure, but I’m a single mom, and I want my child to have a college education. I wonder though… Women typically outlive men, but the men are catching up… is that because the women are adopting the breadwinner’s lifestyle, with all the stresses and loneliness that entails? You’d like to think we’re all taking better care of ourselves, but…

  5. I get 23 days of paid vacation, and last year I took 11 — and that was a tough fight to get. This year I have a new assignment and discovered two other managers who work with me also barely took two weeks of their four-plus vacation weeks last year. So we have made a pact — we are all taking 23 days this year.

    As for two months of leave, yes there would be travel. Grace’s vacation cottage sounds blissful to me. A month long rental in Paris, or Prague, or Ireland, England or Scotland, or Sweden or Tuscony ….. Yup, bliss would be the word.

    • We will hold you to that pact. As a manager, you also have to model self-care to your employees, and SHOW them that the place doesn’t fall down when somebody goes on leave. We’re counting on you to set the good example!

  6. I’m retired, so maybe it’s inappropriate for me to answer! But, given what I’ve been doing post-retirement, I think that extra two months would have been spent on volunteer work, reading and gardening. I’m looking forward to reading Tremaine’s story.

  7. Two and half months paid time off?!? That would be something close to miraculous.

    I know for a fact we’d have less spread of diseases at work because we’d all be less likely to come into work when sick because we are afraid of using up all of our leave. I’m guilty of it. Just last Friday I worked while sick rather than take one of those few days off. I did tell everyone to keep their distance and to sterilize everything I touched, but still. I did take a sick day today because I knew there was no way I’d be able to keep up – but I do resent having to use up one more day from my small store of paid days off.

    Alone the same train of thought, how many children get sent to school when they are ill because their parents don’t have the ability to take off from work to care for them?

    • Oh, what you said. I recall when my daughter had chicken pox, which is considered to be infectious for 21 days. Wrecked my budget, but how lovely, to have those days at home, and–once she got to feeling better–the time with her.

      I think about this issue when the whole vaccine debate heats up. “Just be responsible…” people say, as if a) you can tell when your child is infectious even though measles is infectious BEFORE symptoms show, and b) we all have endless leave to stay home with sick kids… My mom had seven children, and we all got sick in series… no way she would have had enough leave to take good care of us.

  8. This summer I agreed to do some part-time office work for a friend. I have a love-hate relationship with it. The extra money is nice but I’m not enjoying my summer like I normally do (or getting stuff done at my house).

    I generally spend these two months going to the gym in the mornings and reading and puttering around the house. Now, if these two months were *paid* (Let us recall, I only have a 200 day contract), I might find myself a nice little rental house somewhere for a few weeks. Where? Anywhere. Wyoming, Montana, Foresta, Scotland, Ireland, France. Anywhere would be nice for a few weeks.

    Americans don’t really know how to relax even when they go on vacation. We’ve got to see it all and do it. Probably because we’ve only got a couple of weeks (Which is the most that most employers will allow an employee to take at one time).

    • I feel very strongly that teachers need their summers OFF. It’s a mighty stressful job, physically, intellectually, emotionally… I know as a kid, my summers were my sanity. I see the year round school handwriting on the wall, and I understand the benefits, but we need to look after our teachers better if we’re going to take their summers away. For everybody’s sake.

  9. I am lucky that I get 3 weeks paid vacation and usually over a weeks worth of personal days. Plus we get all federal holidays off with pay.
    I think if I got all that other time off I would have to take some small getaway trips by myself to see all the places in the US that I haven’t seen yet.

    • That’s another way we’re different from the Europeans. They tend to live closer to family and to move less, so they don’t need to use up all their leave checking in with grands or the children. They can sightsee, and as one friend pointed out, the distance I travel to see my parents would be enough to get him from Scotland to Cairo…

  10. We are taught from early on, to be industrious. We never had a vacation when I was a kid. My Dad was a contractor (small business) peole called on Sunday, they knew he would be home, could he fix their screen door, or a window was stuck. And he would go and rarely was he paid, he was their friend. When we did go somewhere it was to my maternal grandmothers and he spent the time fixing things and I do believe he was happy with that, one day of visiting was enough. My husband and I did have some vacation time, but we went to his parents, we halped around the ranch, she was ill. Finally a 2nd husband and I did go on vacations, we each had 3 weeks but we did not take them all at once, his family were not well. But in retirement we did have the wonderful 13 yrs of travel around the US. In my younger years I usually spent a week trying to do all the stuff that was neglected, one time my sons and I painted the house. We do not know how to relax !

    • The whole idea of a vacation was also foreign to my upbringing. As a kid, I spent some summers in San Diego because my dad (a professor) was working for a season at UCSD rather than Penn State, but by no means were those vacations. Then I had very little leave as a young mom, and it was spent seeing my parents. It’s only NOW, when I’m working two full time jobs, that I have both the time and the funds to see a little of the world.

  11. Wow, two months off? I don’t know. I just took off one day to see my best friend in Dallas, Texas. We went to afternoon tea. I got a manicure and pedicure. I saw a little Wimbledon. I am obsessed with Outlander. I am on book 6 and bought the first season of the TV show. I also have a T-shirt. We went out to dinner twice. Her daughter put an app on my phone. I guess try to slow down and connect more. See if I could get my husband out of the house?

    • What a fine idea–connect more!

      As for hubby… I’ve heard it said over and over, if we’re going to retire, we need to retire TO something, not just FROM something. One theory of aging is that we don’t die because we get old, we get old because we disengage from life. I hope he DOES get out of the house, and find something he loves to do…. or you might have to find a lot more out of town friends to connect with.

  12. The best part of all that extra vacation to me would be that it wouldn’t feel like our limited vacations would have to be rationed between visiting family, many of whom live distant and juggle their own busy lives and limited vacation time, and experiencing all the amazing places there are to see in the world! That opportunity would be priceless to me, my hubby and our 3 kids.

    • You said a mouthful. I have many friends in the same boat. They use of all their leave (and discretionary income, if any there is) making annual visits to relatives, or hosting relatives. I know I’ll want to see my daughter often as I age, but I don’t want her feeling constrained to use up her leave on a duty visit. You all are charged with reminding me I said this.

  13. I’m a public school teacher with summers “off.” My district paid me on June 30 and will not make another deposit until September 30. During the school year I accumulate leave that I never take and will be paid pennies on the dollar for if I’m ever able to retire. I agree that students need time off, but I would support a year-round model with spread-out breaks. Alas, in so very many ways the system is broken.

    • Seems our education system is like our criminal justice system–we can all agree we’re not happy with it, but after that… how to fix it? I’m sorry your summer is such a broke time–writing can be like that. We get paid twice a year, usually, we never know how much our paychecks will be, but I’ve yet to get one that was “surprisingly large.” I will wish you many good books this summer, much rest, and some recharging. Teacher is a tough, tough job, but it matters. It really, really matters.

  14. I wish there were folks that understood human resources…. Human . I think there was a time that work and companies did place more value in that human part. It was a short time because money and profit seem to be most important. I think we would all be more relaxed , kinder and less stressed with time to breathe. Great post Grace. Food for thought . I personally think short respids and trips would be welcoming for me but I must admit a retreat in a cottage sounds wonderful

    • My husband quit his job in May to go back to college in part because he wanted more time off. As a mechanic at a small shop, he worked 50 hours a week and got one week of paid vacation a year, which must be taken between Christmas and New Year’s. That’s it.

      I get a more luxurious 4 weeks of paid time off. I save two weeks for sick days for me or the kids, and two weeks for vacations or mental health stay-home-and-sleep days.

      With more free time, I guarantee I’d be more productive. I got as much done when I worked part-time as I do now working full-time, because I needed the recharge time to let my brain operate on full speed. I would love to have more time for travel and family and books and volunteer work and just play time with my kids.

      • One WEEK?! ONE SINGLE WEEK? That is criminal! I’d go back to school to, rather than put up with a schedule like that. When is he supposed to have time with his kids, or with his dear wife?

    • I know spending an entire week–Saturday to Saturday–without many expectations on me helped me reset my mood. The law office has become quite stressful lately, with a lot of tasks that I’m qualified to do, but don’t enjoy doing. To be far away, by myself, with literally peace and quiet by the hour, was lovely… even if I did spend most of it wrestling Matthew’s story onto the screen.

  15. Enjoyed reading the article. I have always worked and enjoyed working. However, I always looked forward to my vacation days and used them every year. I knew some of my workers that saved their days and tried to use them to get a longer vacation.Those often did not work for them.

    • I know a lot of women who save their vacation days because if they ever want to go on maternity leave, the short term disability half pay doesn’t kick in until they’re out six weeks. Because maternity leaves IS only six weeks in this backward, blighted excuse for a… well, suffice it to say, they need the money.

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