Arnie Weissmann
Arnie Weissmann

In 2009, 2011 and 2015, bills were introduced in Congress that would have mandated a guaranteed paid vacation to employees nationwide. None passed.

In January, New York mayor Bill de Blasio proposed similar legislation for Gotham's residents. It has not been formally submitted to the City Council, but it has become a point of active discussion among council members and business leaders.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) was the sponsor of the 2011 and 2015 federal measures, but don't let the advocacy of a self-labeled socialist and a self-styled progressive mayor lead you to think the paid vacation proposals are tied to the far left. Such legislation was first proposed in 1910 by Republican President Howard Taft, who thought two to three months of paid time off was a reasonable ask. Congress thought otherwise.

Sanders, on the other hand, was seeking a comparatively modest 10 days for workers who have at least a year's tenure at a company with 15 or more employees, and de Blasio is seeking two weeks for workers in companies with at least five employees.

The U.S. is one of only seven countries -- and the only country with a population over 117,000 -- that does not mandate paid vacation. The other six are the South Pacific island nations of Kiribati, the Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Nauru, Palau and Tonga.

The workers receiving the most generous paid vacations toil in northern territories in Russia, where they can get up to 56 days. Those with the least mandated paid vacation live in the Philippines and Nigeria (five days in each). Six countries offer 30-plus days; 98 offer 20 to 29 days; 66 offer 10 to 19 days; and 11 offer five to 10. Seven countries have tiered systems, linking vacation days to tenure, or they differentiate between public- and private-sector workers.

These are minimums, and employers can offer additional leave if they wish. U.S. employers voluntarily provide paid vacation benefits to 77% of the American workforce.

But U.S. workers have a complicated relationship with vacations. Research by the U.S. Travel Association has shown that American employees left 705 million unused vacation days on the table in 2017, of which 212 million were forfeited, for a loss of $62.2 billion worth of benefits. This represented 43 million more days lost than in 2016.

A slight minority of U.S. workers, 48%, did use all their allotted vacation, and the average number of vacation days taken, 17.2, was up by 0.4 days from 2016.

Free enterprise purists would point to the 77% of employers who provide paid vacation as proof that market forces compel employers to offer benefits when competition for workers demands it.

So, is a vacation something that requires federal intervention?

Many argue that there could be legitimate societal benefits to such a mandate. A study by Oxford Economics delineated a series of gains for both employees and employers when workers take time off, including higher productivity, greater employee retention, increased workplace morale and better health. It pointed to macroeconomic benefits, as well: If employees took off their available time in full, the U.S. economy would see a rise in business sales of $160 billion, an increase in tax revenue of $21 billion and an additional 1.2 million jobs.

But in the mega-microcosm of New York, business leaders who are lobbying against the de Blasio proposal argue that the equation is not balanced: They would have to subsidize the benefits to the tune of $1.67 billion.

Perhaps the rise of the gig economy should be of greatest concern to those in the travel industry with a vested interest in Americans taking vacations.

Currently, 60 million U.S. workers are contractors, and CNBC reported on a study suggesting that the majority of U.S. workers could be contractors by 2027.

California tried to legislate benefits for them, requiring companies to recognize most contractors as employees, but that backfired for Californians doing contract work across state lines. As long as there are states that do not have this requirement -- 49, at last count -- corporations can and will find contractors elsewhere.

Gig economy aside, would it be wise or unwise to pass federal legislation mandating paid vacation?

I compared two lists I thought were most relevant: One showed required lengths of paid vacation, while the other ranked countries by gross domestic product (GDP) per capita. A correlation between paid vacation and high per capita GDP wouldn't necessarily show a direct positive benefit to paid vacations, but if those at the top of the GDP list also had generous vacation policies, it would suggest that mandated paid vacation is not a significant drag on economies.

The results? Of the top 10 with highest per capita GDP, the average mandate (including the zero from the U.S.) is for 18.2 days of paid vacation. This suggests that a required 20-day paid vacation is not an economic killer and might even contribute to economic success: The average mandated paid vacation in the six countries with stronger per capita GDP than the U.S. is 21.6 days.


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