IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

America deserves a vacation

Holidays are around the corner. Many Americans are planning vacations. But there are differences among us in our actual ability to take time off.
Commercial Airline Comes In For Landing In Florida
A commercial jet plane comes in for a landing at Miami International Airport October 29, 2004 in Miami, Florida.

Holidays are around the corner. Many Americans are planning vacations. But there are differences among us in our actual ability to take time off.

The wealthy can take vacations at resorts, while those earning less only see such places on television. Many low wage workers are unlikely to take any vacation at all.

"Holiday cheer in the U.S. has become an office perk -- just another part of the growing wealth divide."'

The U.S. Travel Association calls Americans “work martyrs” because 40% don’t even use earned vacations. One survey found that those with incomes of $100,000 or more take almost twice as much vacation as those with incomes of $50,000 or less. Lower income workers, it turns out, are the “martyrs.”

In research for our book "Unequal Time," in interviews with hundreds of doctors, nurses, EMTs and nursing assistants, we found that vacations are the preserve of the affluent. 

Doctors, like other medical personnel, must work holidays -- someone has to be on duty Thanksgiving or Christmas day. Vacations are different: All but a handful of doctors take four or more weeks of vacation, and regularly go to luxury resorts. As one told us, “We get a fair amount of time off ... Somewhat on the order of 9-12 weeks a year.” Asked: “Have you ever not been able to take the vacation?” His response, typical of doctors, was “No, I take that time, definitely, always.”

Twelve weeks off is the top end, but four weeks is the bottom. Doctors use the time to take a trip and enjoy some luxury, which they see as a right -- even a need -- at least for them. As one commented, “Someone who has a very low-stress job may not consider a great vacation a need; they’ll be happy going up to Maine for a week …. Because I have a very high-stress job I really need to get away” to take two weeks skiing in Utah, which he considers “a really great escape.”

Even though nursing assistant jobs are stressful -- with unpredictable schedules, lots of back injuries, little money, less control -- most nursing assistants rarely take a week of vacation. Going to Maine for a week may be a once-in-a-lifetime experience. In one nursing home we studied, the schedule showed that over a six month period, including the summer (the most common time to take a vacation), only one-quarter of the nursing assistants took a vacation of even a week.

Related: Americans are falling behind ... on taking vacations

Many nursing assistants take no vacation at all. One who was better-off than many others and owned and lived in a trailer said, “When I buy my vacation time [that is, take an extra week of pay in place of vacation], I save it so I know I have the oil for the coming winter.” Another aide in a nursing home explained that if she has 24 hours of vacation built up, “I could tell [the payroll person], I wanna cash in 24 hours. The following week on that Friday I would get my check plus a check for 24 hours. So I’d have extra money.” She does this, “Around Christmas, and stuff like that. Or when I’m in debt or something, you know?” As debt accumulates, vacations disappear.

Some organizations now offer an “earned time off” system in which sick leave is combined with vacation time. While a worker previously received 6 days of sick leave and 15 days of vacation, the new policy means the person receives 18 or 19 days of earned time off. For workers who use all their sick days, this reduces vacation; for healthy workers, this might amount to increases in vacation. One nursing assistant was clear about the dilemma this posed: “I hate using my sick time. ‘Cause I’m saving up for a vacation!”

In this system, parents -- who tend to need more sick days than the childless -- lose the most vacation. For many women employees, “vacation” is often a sick day to care for family. As one nurse noted, “For years now, I haven’t taken any vacation time. Not a vacation -- I mean, I’ll take my hours so I can take a day off, but I’m usually watching my kids.”

The Los Angeles Times recently faced a revolt when it tried to introduce such a policy, under which its workers would no longer have been entitled to separate sick, vacation and personal days; each employee would have had to ask managers for any time off and would have gotten a set number of days off per year (and not be able to bank them or carry them over to the next year). “People here are completely outraged,” one employee told The New York Times. In the face of protests, The Los Angeles Times rescinded the policy. Other organizations, like Netflix, promote this system, even though it leads workers to come in sick.

Vacation breaks refresh us and are good for our health, happiness, and families. Dispensation of drugs for depression, one recent study shows, drops as the number of people going on vacation increases. A recent report says these respites are good for the economy because they increase productivity.

Vacations are considered a basic right in other countries. Workers in much of the world are legally guaranteed four or more weeks of paid vacations and holidays. That's not the case here in the U.S., where recently launched the Vacation Equality Project to convince the government that it is “a travesty that 28 million Americans don’t have a single day of paid vacation.” In the meantime, holiday cheer in the U.S. has become an office perk -- just another part of the growing wealth divide.

Dan Clawson is professor of sociology at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Naomi Gerstel is a distinguished university professor of sociology at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. They are the authors of "Unequal Time: Gender, Class, and Family in Employment Schedules."