Zack Wittman for The Boston Globe
Every summer, coworkers around the country ask each other the same exhilarating question: “Where are you going on vacation?”
But many of them aren’t going anywhere — not because they don’t want to, but because they can’t.
Nearly a quarter of the American private-sector workforce, some 26 million workers, doesn’t get paid time off, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics — compared with less than one-fifth in the 1990s.The United States is the only advanced economy that doesn’t guarantee paid vacation and one of only 13 countries in the world not to do so, according to the World Policy Analysis Center at the University of California Los Angeles.
In this regard, the United States falls in line with India, Nepal, Pakistan, Sierra Leone, and a handful of island nations that don’t require employers to offer workers paid time off. France, on the other hand, mandates 30 paid vacation days a year for all workers; Scandinavian countries offer 25. US citizens in Puerto Rico get three weeks off a year.
Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Greece, and Sweden even require employers to pay vacationing workers extra to help with expenses.
In the United States, low-wage earners disproportionately work without paid vacation. Only 49 percent of those in the bottom fourth of earners get paid time off, compared with 90 percent among the top quarter of earners.
Enid Lugo, a 52-year-old fast-food worker in Holyoke, doesn’t get vacation time and couldn’t afford to go anywhere if she did. Even getting an unpaid day off from her $8-an-hour job is a struggle. “They will give it to me,” she said, “with a little attitude.”
In recent years, some political leaders, workers advocates, and others have pressed for laws that would require paid vacation in the United States. Hotels.com recently started an online petition — a self-serving one, coming from a company that offers vacation accommodations — urging the Obama administration to “bring vacation equality to the land of the free.”
US Representative Alan Grayson, a Florida Democrat, introduced legislation last year that would guarantee employees one to two weeks of paid time off a year. A bill introduced this year in Washington state would require employers with 25 or more workers to give paid days off to people who work at least 20 hours a week.
But the bills have gone nowhere, and opposition has been intense. Some conservative commentators have called the proposals socialism; others say they would create a nation of slackers.
“From the reaction we got, you would have thought we were proposing the end of Western civilization,” said John De Graaf, executive director of the paid-leave coalition Take Back Your Time
Corporations, however, argue that mandating paid vacation would add unnecessary regulation and expense. The Association of Washington Business in Olympia, Wash., which represents private employers, testified in legislative hearings that 91 percent of full-time workers nationwide get paid vacation and requiring it for all would increase costs and inhibit innovation, flexibility, and job growth.
The business community’s strong stance against government mandates, including vacation time, is one reason the United States doesn’t require companies to give workers paid time off, workplace analysts say.
Another: Social welfare programs and unions are not as strong here as they are in Europe and other industrialized nations. Some US unions don’t even push for vacation time because workers tend to want money instead of time off, De Graaf said.
The average private-sector US worker gets 10 days off a year, according to the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington D.C. That’s how much was given to a 59-year-old home health aide in Cambridge, who asked not to be identified because she feared losing her job — until the end of 2012, when her employer eliminated paid vacation time.
“No meeting, nothing,” she said.
Paid vacation was one of the few perks the woman received, even after 13 years of full-time work. Some years, she used it to visit family in Haiti; other years, she cashed it in so she could send money back home. The only extras she gets from the company now, she said, are $25 gift certificates at Thanksgiving and at Christmas.
Some companies, primarily in the tech sector, have stopped putting a limit on employee vacation time. This allows workers to take off as much time as they want, although some people end up taking fewer vacations than they used to.
The benefits of taking time away from work are well documented: reduced stress, improved health, increased productivity. Amy Scannell, director of client engagement for Insight Performance Inc., a human resources consulting firm in Dedham, said vacation time is beneficial not only to workers, but also for business.
“It’s important for the CEO to show that he values his employees,” she said. “You can attract and retain really amazing people.”
But the rise in businesses that save money by hiring independent contractors, who don’t get company benefits, is limiting the number of employees with paid vacation days.
Karin Zeitvogel used to work in France for the Agence France-Presse news organization, where she had more than 50 paid days off a year, including holidays. When she left in 2011, after 11 years, the agency continued to pay her salary for 18 months to compensate her for unused vacation time.
Now Zeitvogel, 56, lives in Washington and works as a contractor for the government radio program Voice of America – with no paid vacation time. Every trip she takes, including a Christmas visit to her parents’ home in Weston, she ends up breaking out her laptop and working to pay the bills. She would love to get another job with paid vacation, even if she made less money.
“If you don’t look out for the people who work for you, they’re going to stop working well for you,” Zeitvogel said.
As people continue to push for vacation and sick time, some analysts predict that the United States will eventually adopt laws requiring paid time off. In the meantime, leisure time continues to shrink.
De Graaf, the paid-leave advocate, last year directed a short film called “The Great Vacation Squeeze.” In it, a ranger at Yosemite National Park noted that 20 years ago, 80 percent of visitors stayed overnight. Today, the average visit is less than five hours.
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