Workweek longer, vacations shorter Time off fell 15% for Americans in the 1980s.

April 06, 1992|By Carol Kleiman | Carol Kleiman,Chicago Tribune

When the speaker of the Japanese Parliament's lower house recently accused American workers of being lazy and charged that 30 percent are illiterate, he was only half right.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that 30 percent of unskilled workers in this country are indeed illiterate.

But lazy? Not at all.

Although the U.S. Chamber of Commerce predicted in 1978 that a 32-hour, four-day workweek would replace the 40-hour, five-day workweek, the country was edging toward a 60-hour workweek by 1990.

Americans not only work more hours, they have shorter vacations than almost everyone else in the world -- although usually not by choice.

"We found that in the period from 1969 to 1989, the average person worked 158 hours more a year and at the same time paid vacations decreased," said economist Laura Leete-Guy.

She and Juliet B. Schor wrote "The Great American Time Squeeze: Trends in Work and Leisure, 1969-1989," a study done for the Economic Policy Institute in Washington. Their research shows that paid vacations, including holidays, sick leave and personal days, declined to an average of 16.1 days in 1989 from 16.4 days in 1969.

"From 1981 to 1989, there was a decrease of 3.7 vacation days, compared to an increase of 3.4 days from 1969 to 1981," said Ms. Leete-Guy, assistant professor of economics at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. "Time off for U.S. workers fell 15 percent in the 1980s, a striking reversal of 30 years of progress."

Paid vacations for American workers are "in sharp contrast to Western Europe, where workers average four to six weeks paid vacation," she said. In France, for instance, where workers are known to "disappear" for the entire month of August, legal minimum vacation is five weeks plus nine to 10 paid holidays.

Five weeks also is the legal minimum for Denmark, Finland and Sweden, where some employers often give as much as eight weeks off, the study shows.

The economist expects vacation time for U.S. workers to continue to decrease. "Even the meager two weeks U.S. workers now have is in jeopardy, despite the fact that studies show the more rested workers are, the more productive, motivated and efficient they are," said Ms. Leete-Guy.

"There is no strong central labor union in the United States, as in many European countries, to negotiate vacations for workers. What we've seen in the past is that increased time off has come at the behest of labor unions. Workers won't get more vacation without fighting."

But a management consultant says that if workers wanted longer vacations, they'd get them, with or without unions.

"Companies do what they must do in order to be competitive and attract the best workers," said Sam Bernstein, partner in Hewitt Associates, an international benefits consulting firm based in Lincolnshire, Ill., a Chicago suburb. "And vacations are not a top priority."

In a survey last year, Hewitt found that 82 percent of 944 major U.S. employers provide two weeks' vacation at the end of one year of service; 71 percent offer three weeks at the end of five years; 66 percent give 3.8 weeks at the end of 10 years; and 56 percent provide five weeks for 25 years of service.

Hewitt also compared U.S. vacations with those of foreign countries. "The U.S. is at the low end of vacation time offered worldwide, but only in the early years of employment," Mr. Bernstein said. "When you get up to 15 or 20 years, then U.S. paid vacations are comparable."

The trade-off, he said, is that "U.S. corporations have higher wage standards than Europeans, where vacations are mandated by the government. We put emphasis on the individual; we don't like to restrict what a company can do."

Mr. Bernstein wonders whether workers take all the vacation time they have coming. He said the Japanese do not. And, a survey of 1,344 business executives conducted by Priority Management Systems Inc., a management training company, shows that 49 percent take only two weeks' vacation or less each year.

The Hewitt consultant gets three weeks of vacation after 15 years of service, but he doesn't take the full time. "We're debating going to Europe for two weeks this fall, but I'll spend a couple of those days in our offices there," Mr. Bernstein said.

Vacations are too important to ignore, said Thomas R. Collingwood, director of program services for the Cooper Institute for Aerobic Research in Dallas and a specialist in mental health.

"In Europe, there's a strong commitment to giving people a lot of leisure, but often in the U.S. we are driven to be workaholics -- especially in a tight economy," said Mr. Collingwood, who has a doctorate in psychology.

"An additional problem is that in this technological age we are more sedentary in our work and are inundated with information. A complete break away is more important now than it has been in the past."

But he agreed that vacation days will not increase. "Fewer U.S. workers have union contracts, and all employees, not just white-collar workers, have to negotiate their own vacation time," Mr. Collingwood said. He plans to go mountain climbing in Colorado this summer.

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