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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?

This May, Florida Congressman Alan Grayson introduced the "Paid Vacation Act of 2009," an attempt to require U.S. companies of at least 100 people to give a minimum one week of paid leave per year. If passed, that level would rise to two weeks within three years after enactment. At that point, enterprises of at least 50 people would also be required to offer at least one week of paid leave.

A movement called "Take Back Your Time" has been explaining to Americans why they should support the legislation, using phrases like "time affluence," "time poverty," "time stress" and factoids like this:

  • Americans are twice as likely as Europeans to suffer from anxiety and depression, and many experts believe these deficits are caused by lack of time;
  • According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average American works one month (160 hours) more today than in 1976; and
  • Companies that have adopted the vacation benefits endorsed here have dramatically increased productivity and profits.

In Europe, with that battle long behind, employee representatives like Brian Synnott of the European Federation of Public Service Unions (EPSU) are pushing on, trying to bring down further the number of hours Europeans are actually working, which stands at 38.6. EPSU, which represents workers in a wide variety of sectors including health care and public utilities, wants to “make sure that this myth — that (a shorter workweek) has an impact on productivity — is completely exploded,” Synnott explained.

Though the legal maximum workweek in the EU is 48 hours, there is currently an “opt-out” mechanism that allows employers and employees to agree on longer shifts if they wish. His group and its umbrella organization, the European Trade Union Confederation, are trying to get rid of the “opt-out,” claiming it contributes not just to unemployment by keeping workers on long shifts, but also to a degradation in health and safety of the wider public due to fatigue and burn-out.

The employers’ side contends that the “opt-out” should be left alone, to give workers the freedom to take on more hours if they choose.

But employers might want to take a look at how well the more work/less play model turns out for them. A statistics snapshot from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development shows that, of the EU countries, Belgium, Ireland, Luxembourg and the Netherlands are all outperforming the U.S. when it comes to GDP per hour worked. Luxembourg outpaces the U.S. by an astounding 27 percent in this category — with an average of 28 days of paid leave.