A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

Do Americans get less vacation than people in other developed countries?

March 2, 2001

Dear Cecil:

A while ago you compared tax rates in the U.S. to those in other developed countries [December 1]. How about doing the same for vacation time? I've heard the Germans get so many days off they only have to work four days a week, and I don't get the impression the French are overexerting themselves either. What's the straight dope?

Cecil replies:

You've heard about the German work ethic? Hah. According to Sam of the Straight Dope Science Advisory Board, who works at a consulting firm specializing in employee compensation, required vacation time in Germany and other developed countries is much greater than in the U.S. He cautions that just because Americans seem to be working longer doesn't mean they're working harder, etc. But the deal workers in other countries get still sounds pretty plush.

Sam compared time off from work in nine countries — six in Europe plus Japan, Canada, and the U.S. When it comes to public holidays, all the countries are pretty much alike, with totals ranging from eight days in the Netherlands and the U.K. to fourteen in Japan (the U.S. has nine).

It's in the category of "required vacation at full pay" that we see a big difference. Outside the U.S., mandatory vacation time ranges from 10 days in Canada and Japan to 20 days in the Netherlands and the UK, 24 days in Germany, 25 in Sweden and France, and 35 days for managers in Italy. The required vacation in the U.S.? None.

Things even out a bit when we consider Sam's last category, "common vacation practice at large employers." U.S. firms typically give their workers 10 days (two weeks) off in the first year, increasing to 25 days after 20 years. This compares to 21 days after 15 years in Japan, 25 after 20 years in Canada, and 30 days in Germany. The French are legally entitled to two and a half days of vacation per month worked, which means they're within their rights to take a full 25 days off after less than a year on the job. And of course the French work week is now limited to 35 hours.

Feeling overworked? It gets worse. In many countries employers provide a vacation allowance, sometimes called vacation loading. For example, in Mexico, if you're entitled to 20 days' vacation, your employer must pay you for the 20 days plus another 25 percent, or the equivalent of 25 days' pay. What's more, Mexican employers often give much more than the statutory requirement — typically around 80 percent. Granted, base pay is low, but they do the same thing in Europe, where wage scales are higher. In Belgium the vacation premium is 85 percent of one month's pay. Console yourself with the thought that in general you pay less tax.

Other interesting time-off arrangements:

  • Extended leave. In Australia workers typically receive 13 weeks' paid leave after 15 years on the job. In many Muslim countries extended leave is provided for a pilgrimage to Mecca (the catch: you can take it only once in your career). In Indonesia workers get paid time off during the workday for prayer. In Italy, which has different priorities, you get 15 days off with pay if you get married.
  • Blood donation. In Brazil employees must be given one day off with pay to donate blood.
  • Menstrual leave. In Japan, Korea, and many Muslim countries women get one day off with pay each month. (Only a cad would add: I bet the men are glad they do.) In Japan the law currently applies only to women with severe menstrual discomfort.

Does that answer your question, Dan? Good. Now get back to work.

Dear Cecil:

As a person cursed with many cowlicks, I would like to know of any possible cures for my constantly up-on-end hair. You are one of the few information sources I trust.

Cecil replies:

As a former victim of cowlick, Vince, I've got good news for you. Just sit tight for a few years. The problem will solve itself.

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