Are Americans “Vacation Starved” ?

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Washington – When President Bush clocked out to start on a 30-day vacation at his Texas ranch, a collective lament was in the air from much of the population: “When do we get a break?”

The vacation brings to 52 days the president’s total vacation time since his swearing-in last January, a number that dwarfs the average eight days of vacation most U.S. small business employees receive each year, according to Joe Robinson, director of the Work to Live campaign. Robinson, declaring America to be “the most vacation-starved country in the industrialized world,” is one of many people leading the charge for a decrease in the national workload.

The loosely defined movement gained impetus with the publication of Harvard economics professor Juliet Schor’s book The Overworked American, which noted that — while corporate profits and worker productivity were up — most workers were seeing their free time diminish. Schor’s comments echoed calls made by labor reformers in the 1930s, who successfully established the eight-hour day by pressuring for the passage of the Fair Labor Standards Act.

Decades later, however, many American workers are still toiling for an excessive amount of hours. According to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, goods-producing employees in private industry work an average of 40.4 hours per week.

Deborah Figart, co-editor of the recent book Working Time, told the Institute for Public Accuracy that “part of the problem is that U.S. managers are encouraged to overwork people because of the fixed costs associated with each employee, like healthcare insurance and unemployment insurance.” Meanwhile, according to Figart, “low income people work overtime so they can pay their bills.”

Many lament the so-called technology revolution’s powerlessness in relieving the excessive workload placed upon Americans. “Technology could be part of the solution,” says Figart, “but it has often meant that people spend time at home writing work-related emails.”

The problem looks even worse when the U.S. is compared with other industrialized nations. According to Robinson, Americans work two months more each year than Germans in total hours, and two weeks longer than Japanese workers — long considered to be the world’s weariest workforce.

But what about that vacation? Even the President’s 30-day respite pales in comparison to the holiday time enjoyed by workers in other parts of the world. “Europeans and Australians receive four to six weeks paid leave,” Robinson commented.

Farm laborers bear a significant chunk of the American workload, says David Strauss, a farm worker advocate. Farmers, like many workers in America, rarely get the opportunity to take a paid vacation. “If the weather is bad, or they are between crops they have to work on, farmers don’t get a dime. The typical farm worker has no vacation benefits, no health benefits, and works for at or near minimum wage.”

As a solution to the overburdening of the American workforce, some prescribe an overhaul of many American ideals. Gabe Sinclair, author of the utopian novel The Four Hour Day, describes society as “thoroughly addicted to consumerism and to class hierarchy.”

“Two percent of Americans now grow all of our food, while another 30 million or so do all the mining, manufacturing and construction,” Sinclair says. “If this minority can produce our modern cornucopia, then the four-hour workday is within easy reach.”

Arthur Waskow, curator of the Free Our Time web site, notes the correlation between overwork and spiritual loss. “Doing, making, profiting, producing and consuming have been elevated into idols,” Waskow contends, “but at the root of our spiritual traditions is a critique of these idolatries. The workings of American society work increasingly to squeeze dry the time for spirit, family and community.”

These indictments of the burden currently placed on American workers constitute a considerable question President Bush might want to address during his lengthy repose in sun-scorched Texas. “It’s great that the president of the United States can recoup his energy with long vacations,” Figart says. ” Now he should encourage policies so that other hard-working Americans can also have time for rest and family.”

Evan Woodward is a writer with IPA Media, a project of the Institute for Public Accuracy.

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