Message From Corporate America: Work Longer, Harder, Faster

Americans have no guaranteed vacation time, average only 13 days offered per year, and often do not even take these.  This is emblematic of a much larger problem where employees are demanded to give up overtime pay, work more hours per year, and make greater sacrifices to increase productivity to create wealth that will likely never make it into their pockets.

As reported yesterday in America: No Vacation Time For You, in the richest country in the world, there is no right to any vacation time.  Paid annual leave and paid holidays are optional for any employer.  In most other wealthy nations, there are between 20-35 vacation days per year (4-7 weeks). Americans are only offered an average of 13 vacation days per year, which is between half to one quarter those offered in other countries.  Only 57% of American workers take their full vacation time, often fearing losing their jobs or not being able to keep up with their workload.

The vacation problem in the US is just the tip of the iceberg. Although it is illegal in the private sector, many US employers will only pay comp time instead of overtime. Under this scheme, hours in excess of 40 per week are accumulated to use for later time off, in essence a substitute for, or sometimes a supplement to an actual paid vacation. This practice is legal in the public sector, but most employees working for private companies either do not understand the law or fear reprisals if they report the violation.

It should be noted that enforcement of labor laws varies greatly by state. Nevada for instance is what is termed a ‘right to work’ state (sometimes referred to as ‘right to work for less’ or ‘right to fire’ state), and is among 22 like this in the nation. This usually adversely affects wages and worker safety, and makes grievance processes more difficult.

Right across the border in California, labor laws are strongly enforced. Any hours in excess of 8 in a day (or 40 in a week) are paid at a mandatory rate of at least 1.5 times the standard rate (regular overtime). Any hours past 12 in a day or on the 7th day in a row of work must be paid at least twice the normal wage (double time).

Another shady practice often employed by employers is making their workers work off the clock. In other words using pressure to compel workers not record hours they worked. According to Wikipedia:

failing to compensate them for meal periods and rest breaks; failing to pay overtime for travel from shop to work-site and back; not paying overtime for time spent working while traveling; failing to pay overtime for attendance at training, meetings and lectures; failing to compensate for arriving early to perform necessary preparations for work; not paying overtime for time it takes to suit-up or put protective gear on, time waiting to log in, on-call time, or time in security line; forcing employees to work on the weekends without clocking in; or instructing them to report fewer hours than actually worked. A firm might pay 20 hours of overtime per month but to meet their superiors’ deadlines and expectations, employees will have to put in many more hours which do not show up officially

Even beyond worker abuse practices common in the United States, the sheer number of hours worked per year exceeds nearly every other rich country, and very high compared to most countries around the world. The New York Times states, “the typical American worker logging 1,792 hours over the course of the year.” They also provided this chart comparing various OECD countries:

The OECD Observer continues, “Though Koreans easily work the most hours per year in the OECD area, the US is also well above average: in 2005 annual hours worked in the US were 15% higher than the European Union (EU15) average.” They provided this weighted and more focused chart to demonstrate the number of hours worked per year:

It should be noted that there are varying degrees of measurement for the statistics represented in the previous charts. Either way, there has been a deliberate plan to keep Americans working longer hours, as exposed by the NSC 68 document. From Wikipedia:

Beginning in 1950, under the Truman Administration, and continuing with all administrations since, the United States became the first known industrialized nation to explicitly (albeit secretly) and permanently forswear a reduction of working time. Given the military-industrial requirements of the Cold War, the authors of the then secret National Security Council Document 68 proposed the US government undertake a massive permanent national economic expansion that would let it siphon off a part of the economic activity produced to support an ongoing military buildup to contain the Soviet Union.

Despite the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990, working time has remained unchanged by subsequent administrations and Congress.

A 2007 C.I.A. estimate of United States labor force participation placed it at approximately 153.1 million individuals. Assuming each individual worked a 1987 average work week of 1949 hours, working time rose from 121 billion man hours per year to 398 billion man hours per year. This represents an actual extension of the working time by 247 percent over the fifty-seven year period. The United States Bureau of Labor Statistics states that between 1950 and 2000 the number of individuals in the active labor force grew 227 percent from 62 million to 141 million.

While working their longer hours, Americans have a higher average productivity, a figure derived by dividing the country’s gross domestic product (GDP) by the number of people employed. According to CBS:

Each U.S. worker produces $63,885 of wealth per year, more than their counterparts in all other countries, the International Labor Organization said in its report. Ireland comes in second at $55,986, ahead of Luxembourg, $55,641; Belgium, $55,235; and France, $54,609. The U.S., according to the report, also beats all 27 nations in the European Union, Japan and Switzerland in the amount of wealth created per hour of work – a second key measure of productivity.

This culture of work is meant to create excess wealth. If the wealth that is created by the working men and women of America found its way into their pockets, that would be one thing, but increasing it is not. Since the extension of the Bush tax cuts for the rich, it appears as if the disparity in wealth is only going to be exacerbated, leading to charges that class warfare has been and continues to be waged on the poor and middle class.

As my European friends say, “We don’t live to work, we work to live.”

Americans are already working longer, harder, and faster than most other Western nations. This coupled with not having ample vacation time is symptomatic of a culture that demands ever greater sacrifice without increasing compensation.


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