BY: SARAH HOWELL
According to a study by Time magazine, Americans said they can’t “afford to use their vacation days.” Furthermore, the findings suggested that, although many Americans are employed full-time, only 15% of workers felt comfortable taking vacation days. According to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the fear of being replaced, lack of employer support and falling behind work were the chief proponents for skipping paid vacations.
As of 2014, a mere 11.3% of American workers are unionized, the lowest number in 97 years. America has seen a shift in the state of workers’ rights in the past few decades as the economy turns to favouring part-time and temporary-workers’ rights, which are almost always low-wage jobs with little chance of promotion. The average American worker earns a total of 14 days off per year, but only takes about 12 of them. Employees feel that they cannot trust their employers to help them out when they need or want time off, and roughly a quarter of Americans don’t even get vacation time.
The United States is the only industrialized country in the world, that does not have statutory requirements for employers to provide paid holidays. Senior economist with The Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington DC, John Schmitt, rues that “we are enormous outliers,” in a Time interview in March. The effects have been felt all over the United States, and the symptoms are no longer only affecting a minority of Americans. The Fight for 15 protest was the “largest low-wage protest ever” and took place April 15th of this year, spanning several states in the U.S. The movement has been gaining strength and attention since its origin two years ago and some states have responded to the attention by raising the minimum wage so their workers can be paid a livable wage. It has become a common topic of comment for 2016 presidential candidates and political parties—that and the fragile state of unions in the United States.
The Fight for 15 protest was the “largest low-wage protest ever” and raised attention to the right of minimum wage workers to be paid a livable wage.
Fewer than 1 in 8 Americans belongs to a union and since 1985 unions have been on the decline with their numbers dwindling for the last 15 years. Right-to-Work laws, laws that prohibit agreements between labor unions and employers, have been seen as the final nail in the coffin of unions. While these laws can improve relations between employers and employees it can also severely cripple workers’ rights to bargain for fair wages. Maintaining unions has not been an easy thing in the United States, especially relative to other rich countries. In the European Union, frequent holidays are understood as a necessity in any worker’s life. This is very different from how the United States views productivity. In fact, a study done by Eurofound showed that the average German has 40 days of holiday in a year, tied with Danes. Greek workers, on the other hand, receive only two weeks of holiday a year—a country that is currently falling apart.
Employees who are new fathers and mothers also have less say in their vacation choices in the United States. Thanks to a bill in 1993, employees are guaranteed their jobs up to 12 weeks after the arrival of a new baby, however exemptions apply and any vacation would be unpaid. Many new parents struggle under significant debt and often need to turn to governmental support. This is very different from say, Sweden, offering 480 days of paid time off per child to be shared between the parents. The attitudes also differ in the two countries; while Europeans tend to encourage vacations, American companies tend to see it as lazy and inefficient. Americans tend to focus on earning potential, moreso than Europeans, but simultaneously are ranked far unhappier than the average European worker. Even though the average American makes more, they are much less happy.
Americans give up a lot to make money, working long hours, fewer vacations, less sick days and less time with their families. Americans also have the largest gap between rich and poor classes, “20 percent of the population earning nearly $82,000 a year while the bottom 20 percent get by on just $10,600.” Workers’ rights in the United States are becoming noticeably more and more unfair to American citizens and many lawmakers are taking notice. A study done by the American Sociological Review estimated that the recent decline of unions may account for one-third of the rise of inequality amongst workers in the United States. For example, the average autoworker earns about $67 per hour in Germany, compared to $34 in the United States. The United States, compared to Germany, is a low-wage country.
Americans simply cannot afford to miss work—yet the fear of being replaced, left behind or worse is something that is not shared in any other industrialized country. New mothers and fathers are at a significant disadvantage in the workforce and the severe drop in birth rates in the Millennial generation, who are now joining the working class, has been linked to the inability to get rid of their debts and save enough money for the life their parents had. As unions and the working class grow weaker, less pressure is placed on lawmakers to pass, or even entertain, labour-friendly laws. We have seen a turn around of this attitude in the minimum-wage hikes and strikes for higher pay. While severely weakened, the working class isn’t out.