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Need a haircut? Sorry, everyone is 'en vacances'

All employees in the EU get at least 20 vacation days. Why don't Americans get the same?

People sunbathe on a beach of Pinheiro da Cruz, Portugal, Aug. 8, 2009. (Nacho Doce/Reuters)

BRUSSELS — "I’m told that in Brussels, the word 'August' doesn’t exist — the summer months here are June, July, Les Vacances. So it’s nice to see all of you today." That’s how new NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen began his first meeting with journalists earlier this month, either feigning surprise or truly not expecting to see several dozen reporters present in the NATO auditorium.

Of course the Dane couldn’t begrudge any scribe who didn’t show up; he comes from a country where people get an average 30 days a year of paid vacation.

While he was joking, he was barely exaggerating. Day-to-day business in Brussels, as in the numerous international institutions it hosts, downscales dramatically in August. A frequent response to a request for whatever one might need — from information on the economic downturn to a haircut for a toddler — is an unapologetic shrug that it’s simply not possible to help because everyone else is "en vacances."

How do all these people in all walks of life earn so much vacation?

It’s all part of the job. Any job. Every job. Thanks to what’s called the Working Time Directive, no employee in the European Union has to make do with fewer than 20 days of paid vacation each year — not counting religious or national holidays, which number more than a dozen in some EU countries — as long as they work at least 25 hours per week. In many countries, that minimum is considerably higher: workers must be given at least 25 vacation days in Austria, Denmark, France, Luxembourg and Sweden, 24 in Malta and the United Kingdom.

What people usually end up with is even higher than that, according to the European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions (Eurofound). Eurofound figures show Sweden leading the pack with an average of 33 paid days off, followed by Denmark and Germany, tied with 30, then Italy and Luxembourg, each with 28. Workers in the newer EU member states (NMS12) tend to come out on the shorter side, but only those in Cyprus and Estonia end up with the lowest legal level.

(Credit: Eurofound)

Meanwhile, across the pond, Americans remain the only citizens of an industrialized country with no legal right to employer-financed R&R and about a quarter of the U.S. workforce doesn’t receive any, according to estimates by the Center for Economic and Policy Research.