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Vacation Shortage in Land of Plenty

A Commentary By Froma Harrop

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

As we watch the economy slip into second-rateness, another depressing thought rises. All the toil and stress we've put into making America great never translated into the Dolce Vita (sweet life) for ordinary folks.

This may be the land of plenty -- plenty of stuff and the debt to show for it -- but it's also home of subsistence-level vacations. And rather than grow with prosperity, opportunities to restore our nerve endings have become ever scarcer.

"With all this wealth, when are we going to find the time to enjoy ourselves?" John De Graaf, producer of the 1997 PBS documentary "Affluenza," asks rhetorically. Then he chuckles, "It's positively un-American."

De Graaf heads a Seattle-based group called Take Back Your Time, which addresses issues of overwork and time poverty in America. The organization is pushing Congress to mandate at least three weeks of paid vacation for workers.

In the unlikely event that such legislation passes, an important question remains: If the president signs, will workers do the time? A study by Expedia.com found that a third of employed Americans don't even take all the vacation days they've been granted.

A Conference Board survey last April asked workers whether they planned to take a vacation in the next six months (which includes this summer). Only 36 percent(!) said they did, the lowest figure since 1978.

What's going on? One simple explanation is economic anxiety. Observing the layoffs and other signs of downsizing, people fear that a co-worker will be moved into their cubicle while they're away. (And in this country, a loss of employment may also mean no health coverage.) Some workers hold two or more jobs to keep up with depressed wages or loan payments. A vacation from the day job may not include time off from the gig at night.

European workers average more than a month's worth of vacation, and they get it by law. Americans have no such rights. Two weeks off is the pitiful standard, and many companies don't match even that.

About 23 percent of all private sector workers get no paid vacation at all, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. For women, that number is 31 percent.

Business groups argue that mandated vacation would hurt American competitiveness: We're fighting for advantage in a global economy. He who rests ends up dog chow.

De Graaf begs to disagree. "Americans are investing more money in the Netherlands than in China," he said, "and then we complain that we can't compete in the marketplace if we have different vacation time." The Dutch average 25 days of vacation annually.

For you who put price tags on everything, note that vacations can help prevent expensive health problems. The Framingham Heart Study (started in 1948) found that women who took a vacation only once every six years or less were nearly eight times more likely to develop coronary heart disease than those who took at least two vacations a year. And yes, the research was controlled for obesity, diabetes, smoking and income.

Another study reported that men at high risk for heart disease who didn't take annual vacations were 21 percent more likely to die from all causes. Their risk of dying from a heart attack was 32 percent higher.

When Americans tell pollsters that their children won't live as well as they did, they are referring to a material standard of living. Quality of life is another matter, and a high one must include the luxury of non-work.

"Scandal" is the word that best describes the time famine that afflicts the richest people on earth. If rest and relaxation are not basic human rights, they should be.

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