Vacation versus Urlaub

I was recently reminded of how much vacation time Germans get. I sent an email to a gentleman at a German publishing house with whom I had been corresponding, only to get a reply from his secretary that read: “Danke für Ihr Mail an Herrn K. Hier nur ein Zwischenbescheid: Herr K ist zur Zeit im Urlaub.” (“Thanks for your email to Herr K. Here just an interim notice: Herr K is on vacation.”)

What was I thinking? Trying to contact a German business person in mid-July or August? The whole country goes on vacation in the summer. (That’s in addition to the week or two they spent in Greece, Spain or Turkey during the winter.) Northern Europeans live to see the sun in the summer that they never saw all winter! Germans can fly to the US for a four-week summer vacation, with all of that time being paid annual leave.

Source: No-Vacation Nation (Rebecca Ray and John Schmitt, Center for Economic and Policy Research, May 2007, PDF)

Source: “No-Vacation Nation” (Rebecca Ray and John Schmitt, Center for Economic and Policy Research, May 2007, PDF)

Americans who live in Germany or other parts of Europe for a while are shocked by how much paid time off German workers get, especially compared to workers in the USA. But they may also be unaware that the United States of America is the ONLY rich modern nation that has no minimum requirement for paid vacations or holidays for its workers. (See the chart above.) In other words, the minimum requirement in Germany is 34 paid days off (almost 7 weeks), while the minimum in the US is zero, nada, nichts!

If an American gets any paid vacation days at all, it’s only due to the good will of his/her employer (or labor union). The US average for private-sector workers is 10 vacation days (two weeks), plus eight national holidays. The EU minimum is 20 days (four weeks) paid vacation, but many EU nations add more vacation days and/or holidays above the minimum (Austria: 30 days total annual leave, plus 13 paid holidays). Although Canada and Japan are low on the totem pole, they at least mandate 10 paid days off for their hard-working citizens. That’s 10 days more than the US requires, and as a result, about one out of four US workers gets no paid vacation or paid holidays at all. The lower the pay rate and the smaller the company, the less paid time off an American worker gets.

Many firms in Germany and the rest of the EU grant more than the EU minimum legal requirement. It is not unusual for an employee of a German company to get more than the German legal minimum of 34 paid days off. In part, this is due to much stronger labor unions than in the US, but also to a more enlightened view of what’s best for productive workers. Austria, Germany and Switzerland also require even more time off for certain special groups of workers (younger, older, night shift workers, etc.). And we’re not even talking about the generous parental leave (also for fathers!) and sick leave granted in Austria, Germany and much of Europe.

Of the 21 OECD nations included in the “No-Vacation Nation” study, only the US seems to stick to the rule of “all work and no play.” Even sadder, many Americans entitled to paid days off don’t take them at all, or take only some of them. How many Americans do you know who take a full two-week vacation or more? (Teachers don’t count, and their summer vacation is not paid!) A German (or any European) thinks this is nuts – and rightly so.

Another survey conducted for found an average of 1.8 unused vacation days per employee each year in the US. That study also revealed that 53% of respondents did not know that US employees receive far less annual vacation time than their counterparts in other industrialized countries.

So why do Americans put up with this sad state of affairs? Are we all raving workaholics, or what? Do we not understand that study after study says workers are more productive when they take time off?

Perhaps if more Americans traveled abroad and were more aware of the facts found in the chart above, maybe then they would push for the paid vacation time that the rest of the world already enjoys. – Oh, I forgot. They don’t get enough time off to travel anywhere!

NOTE: “No-Vacation Nation” is available in PDF format from