The End of Summer Vacation

A workplace crisis that Obama and McCain could actually fix.

The vacation season is upon us. Rental homes are being opened and prepared for seasonal visitors, and beaches are hiring lifeguards. The Travel section of the paper I work for, the New York Times, recently offered readers “31 Places To Go This Summer.” But for many Americans, as I’ve learned while researching my new book, The Big Squeeze: Tough Times for the American Worker, such guides are likely to be a mirage. Forget about two-week vacations in August. Many working people will be lucky to have a day-cation in July.

While cyclical factors like the spiking price of gasoline and the slumping job market have something to do with this, the real culprits are long-standing trends that have altered the structure of our economy. As a result, with each passing year, more Americans view something that used to be an entitlement—paid time off—as an increasingly unaffordable or unavailable luxury. If John McCain and Barack Obama are serious about wooing working-class voters, they would be smart to pay attention to the lack of paid time off and the huge stresses this has placed on many workers and their families.

There are several factors at work here. To begin with, technology has helped iron downtime out of the economy. Many Americans are struggling to cope with job creep—the phenomenon of work quietly grabbing more and more of our leisure time. We are forever receiving co-worker or client messages on our BlackBerrys, or responding to work e-mails on our home computers on weekends, or lugging our laptops on vacation.

In this era of globalization, companies increasingly run 24/7 because they have operations or clients in Europe and Asia. In the pre-air-conditioning era, many factories closed down in August. No longer. Magazines used to have dark weeks in the summer, but with the online imperative, those breaks have disappeared. Many economists view job creep and disappearing downtime as important contributors to the surge in employee productivity in recent years—a blessing for corporate America and its bottom line. But workers are paying for this, in the currency of higher blood pressure and stress levels.

The upshot is that to be competitive, not just managers but employees in general often feel they can’t afford to take much time off. A common complaint is that it’s not worth going on vacation for more than two or three days because, with work piling up and hundreds of e-mails waiting to be opened, it is so maddeningly difficult to catch up after returning. According to a survey by the Conference Board, a business research organization, the proportion of Americans who said they would take a vacation over the next six months has fallen to a 30-year low of just 39 percent. (Of course, another reason for this is the economic squeezefaced by millions of Americans.)

Some of us are complicit in vacating our vacations. Today’s overstressed workplace has spawned the phrase “extreme jobs”—hyperdemanding positions of 70, 80 hours a week, with intense deadlines and unpredictable developments that can torpedo a weekend, however cherished and planned. Jeffrey Immelt, GE’s chief executive, has boasted of working 100 hours a week for more than two decades. That translates to working six days a week from 7 a.m. to 11:30 p.m. One software engineer I wrote about at Electronic Arts, a video game company, had to work 179 out of 180 days during one stretch in 2004, usually for 13 hours a day.

Comparatively speaking, Americans are winning the time-clock Olympics. The typical U.S. worker puts in 1,804 hours at work each year, 135 hours more than the typical British worker, 240 hours (or six full-time weeks) more than the average French worker, and 370 hours (or nine full-time weeks) more than the typical German. The Conference Board’s magazine points out that the trend toward increased work demands “has begun to reverse the two-century-old industrial paradigm of equating progress with increased leisure.” None of this is good for our family relations. Middle-class couples in the United States, taking both spouses together, are working 520 hours (13 full-time weeks) more a year than such couples worked in the 1980s. Little wonder that the Families and Work Institute found in 2004 that 67 percent of working parents say they don’t have enough time with their children, and 62 percent say they don’t have enough time with their spouses.

These developments have been fueled in part by the decline of the nation’s labor unions. Nor has the government done much, so far, to stick up for leisure. Business owners and executives have far more clout in Washington and state capitals than employees do. One example: Efforts to enact a federal law guaranteeing seven paid sick days to employees at companies with 15 or more workers have run into a wall of corporate opposition, with business lobbyists denouncing the idea as another costly employer mandate.

In researching my book, I was surprised to learn that the United States is the only industrial nation that doesn’t guarantee its workers any paid vacation at all—which explains why, amazing as it may sound, one in four workers in the private sector doesn’t receive any. In the 27 nations of the European Union, by contrast, workers are guaranteed at least four weeks off. (In France, most receive six weeks.) The United States is also the only industrial nation that doesn’t guarantee paid sick days to its workers, and as a result, nearly 60 million workers—43 percent of middle-class workers and 77 percent of low-wage workers—don’t get any, according to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research. (The Family and Medical Leave Act allows for 12 unpaid weeks off if an employee—of a company with 50 or more workers—is sick or has to care for a spouse, child, or parent.)

According to a study of 173 nations worldwide, the United States is one of just four that does not provide paid maternity leave. The others are Swaziland, Liberia, and Papua New Guinea. That’s not the usual company we keep. (In Britain, women receive 39 weeks paid maternity leave.) It pains me how often I hear women in low-wage jobs saying that financial pressures pushed them to return to work just two weeks after giving birth. Or stories like the one of a cashier at a discount store in Brooklyn, N.Y., who told me she was fired because she took two days off to care for her flu-stricken daughter.

If Barack Obama and John McCain want to show they care about those much-discussed working-class voters, they would be wise to address the time squeeze. Many voters want their states to do what California and New Jersey have done: provide six weeks of paid family leave. (Washington state offers five weeks; similar bills have been introduced in Arizona, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New York, and Pennsylvania.) According to the pollster Celinda Lake, 89 percent of voters support legislating paid sick days, while 76 percent favor legislating paid family leave even if the financing would cost all workers $1 of their paychecks a week. At the moment, however, only San Francisco and the District of Columbia have enacted laws guaranteeing paid sick days. In California and Connecticut, one house, but not both, of the state legislature has approved paid sick days, while similar bills have been introduced in 10 other states.

The presidential candidates may not be able to end wage stagnation. Nor can they halt globalization and the way it erodes job security for factory workers and white-collar workers alike. But they just might be able to ease the time squeeze. They can enact laws that guarantee paid vacation. They can also press for legislation providing for paid sick days and paid family leave. Many family-advocacy groups, feminists, and labor unions argue that these measures would go far to reduce tensions between balancing job and family.

Yes, there will be a cost. Many business groups complain that these measures would reduce employer flexibility and increase payroll costs, perhaps significantly. On the other hand, companies that already provide paid vacations, sick days, and parental leave wouldn’t mind if their competitors were required to do likewise. And it’s worth noting that many corporations that provide these benefits have grown and thrived. Moreover, paid sick days might prove to increase productivity by sending more flu-stricken workers home, where they won’t infect everyone else.

And politically speaking, you could imagine Sens. McCain or Obama waving the justice baton about the time squeeze and getting widespread credit for it. Job creep, work/home imbalance, stress—these are problems that unite feminists and Reagan Democrats, family-values conservatives and pro-worker liberals. Maybe we’re all too busy at work to lift up our heads and notice what’s happening to us or too nervous about the economic downturn to protest. But if a presidential candidate did that for us, wouldn’t he hear a lot of amens?