The Plight of the American Worker: So Much To Do, So Little Paid Time Off

Kauai, Hawaii

Hi, everyone. My name’s Kim, and I am a serial wanderluster.

I’m happiest when I surround myself with travel, whether I’m actually exploring a new destination, planning a trip, or daydreaming of all the places I want to visit. I’d love to travel more during the year—a handful of weekend getaways and 1-2 slightly longer trips just aren’t cutting it. Kyle and I were talking the other night about our bucket list-topping trips we’d like to take soon: an African safari, an Antarctic expedition, a Christmas riverboat cruise through Europe. We’d also like to make the 10-day drive around Iceland’s Ring Road, volunteer at an elephant sanctuary in Thailand, and rent an overwater bungalow in Tahiti. Yes, we have some big dreams—but they really are all very attainable. I have friends who have done them all. Naturally, we couldn’t afford to do many of those back-to-back, what with having just paid off all those pesky student loans, but even if we could, it wouldn’t be an option.

Standing in our way? America’s Paid Vacation—or lack thereof.

One of the most depressing aspects of my reality at this point in my life is the fact that I get a measly two weeks of vacation each year—Kyle gets three. With that amount of time, it would literally take us years to do all the things on our list—and those are just the high-priority trips! As the primary trip planner, I do my best to maximize vacation time, arranging trips over built-in vacation days (aka national holidays), which inevitably always hikes prices. That’s money we could spend a lot more wisely on additional trips if we had the time. That minute detail aside, look what I managed to do with two weeks last year!

While I was in San Francisco recently, I met a couple from Australia on a 4-week trip through the American Southwest. They were horrified to learn of the paltry vacation time afforded to Americans—they get 4 weeks at a minimum. In fact, the Unites States is the only developed country in the world that does not legally require paid vacation, and what’s more, one in four American workers doesn’t have a single paid vacation day. In the EU, four weeks of paid vacation is the law. Just look at this chart and wallow in a bit of self-pity with me.

What do you mean you can’t use all your vacation time?

Want to know what’s even sadder than not getting enough vacation time? Not using all of the time you get! (I’m looking at you, Dad, with all that time you say you don’t know how to use).

Huffington Post recently reported that a staggering 40% of Americans will leave paid time on the table this year, citing all kinds of reasons from dreading piles of work upon return to the office to the fear they’ll be seen as replaceable.

As the adorable kid in this MasterCard commercial says, “That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard.” I am inclined to agree!

Traveling makes you a healthier, happier person—and employee!

Now, I really enjoy my job and certainly don’t want to be seen as replaceable, but I also know that taking some time to step away from the organized chaos that is my cubicle to clear my head and gain some perspective makes me a better employee. (And I’m extremely lucky to have a boss who feels the same way).

There are proven health benefits associated with travel. The word “vacation” by definition means you’re taking some time to de-stress and unwind. Europeans take their 20-30 days of paid vacation and live longer, healthier lives, spending far less on health care than Americans.

A handful of American companies are starting to understand this, and have stopped tracking vacation time all together—including Netflix, Expedia, and Virgin Group. The idea is that employees can take the time they need, and being responsible human beings, won’t take advantage of the open policy and ruin it for everybody else. It places a lot of trust in the employee—and I think anyone worth keeping on staff would see this as a gift and use it wisely.

A Denver-based software company called FullContact is taking it a step further, offering their employees “paid paid vacation.” That’s right—each year, every employee gets $7,500 to go on vacation. The conditions? They must actually use the money for a vacation, and they have to promise to disconnect. E.T., do not phone home—or check e-mail! Oh, and when you come back, contribute a photo to the office vacation album! Other perks of working for this company? 100% paid health care, wearing flip flops to work, free beer and a personalized stein (seriously), and what they call “Powder Day,” when you can take off to go skiing or snowboarding “or whatever,” provided you make that day up within 14 days. Sounds like a pretty fair deal, I’d say! You go, FullContact! I bet you have one solid team of very happy employees.

That’s nice and all, but…

Alas, that will never be the reality for the vast majority of us. But don’t despair! Make the most out of those two weeks of vacation each year, and then do a few simple things to ensure that travel is part of your daily life without ever actually leaving your house—or your office. Next week, we’ll take a look at what I do to sate the wanderluster in me when I can’t be on the road.

In the meantime, PLEASE schedule the rest of your vacation days for the year! You’ve earned them; you deserve to use them.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: