Too many holidays? Too few? And who pays?

Monday was “Family Day“, a provincial holiday in Ontario. It’s also Washington’s Birthday  in the U.S. (Note:  I was surprised to discover that Presidents Day, though more commonly used now, is not the official name of the holiday. Who knew?)

Not everyone got the day off. There’s considerable variation in how holidays are categorized: federal, state, provincial; public sector, private sector; unionized, non-unionized; essential or non-essential workers, etc., etc.

Family Day is fairly new in Ontario. It was only created in 2008, to alleviate the dearth of time off between New Year’s and Easter. The addition brought Ontario’s tally of annual public holidays to nine, similar to most other provinces.

Diana Gibson is research director of the Parkland Institute, a University of Alberta social policy research think-tank which just released a study on the work/life balance: Family Day on the Treadmill.

As reported in the Ottawa Citizen, figuring out how much time off is healthy and how and when holidays should be offered, is something of a muddled controversy. For Gibson, it’s clear:

“Everyone should be getting more time off. It’s good for society”

One often hears that Europeans can count on six weeks of paid vacation per year. Nice as that sounds, current (and alarming) headlines remind us that Europe is wrestling with massive unemployment and a looming economic crisis that could drag the world into another recession or worse.

Can countries still afford to designate leisure time as a right and a social good? Gibson wants Canadians, at least, to take a good look at the question and follow a humane balance.

“Why would we want to be like the U. S.? They’re in a mess. Why would we aspire to be like that? Why not look at some other models?”

On the other hand, who exactly pays that piper? Is there such a thing as some magical right to time off? If so, who is going to bring that blessing to folks like ag workers, the self-employed and the uncounted numbers who don’t enjoy any of that now?

Or are we all headed toward some dog-eat-dog globalized world where the good and easy things get flattened out and fade away?

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11 Comments on “Too many holidays? Too few? And who pays?”

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  1. JDM says:

    On the other hand, who exactly pays that piper?

    answer: working people

    How about if the people that want “social time off” set aside some of their pay that they earn while they are working, and put it in a pot for the others who want to take “social time off”.

    That way, if you want to participate in “social time off”, you contribute to the pot. If you do want to take out of the pot, you don’t have to put in.

    Oh, wait. How about we work and save for our own time off? Wouldn’t that be easier? Why wait for someone else to pay for my time off?

  2. Targeting the worker is an old tactic. Giving public workers a day off in February has a cost to the taxpayer that’s miniscule compared to our wars of aggression abroad, corporate welfare, tax breaks for those who need it least, etc.

    Perhaps that’s why the column does not dare put a figure on how much public holidays cost the taxpayer, let alone put it in context. It’s the least of our worries, except of course to the ideologues

  3. Verplanck says:


    What evidence do you have that 6 week vacations are the reason why Europe is such a mess right now? That seemed to be what you were alluding to.

    As for your “magical time off” comment, I bet the guilded age masters thought the same things when people argued for a 5-day work week.

    I read a study that overwork results in depression. Do we honestly think that we can be 100% productive without any time off? In any event, I think we can add more vacations and be more productive than we are now.

  4. Bob Falesch says:

    If the issue is being “humane,” a discussion of time off seems far from the point. In my opinion, what’s more to the point is to ensure that safe, satisfying, and challenging working conditions exist during the 48 or 50 weeks one is at the job. Otherwise, a mere one week after returing from a lovely vacation will likely usher in that torment or frustration and begin the cycle all over again.

    As for the economic side, I don’t know. Improving productivity of the workforce would seem to be core to that equation. There is a relationship between greater productivity and a need for fewer workers, seemingly complicating the unemployment picture. What a conundrum that is. But again, time off does not seem strongly relevant to me.

    A one-day holiday: tokenism.

  5. Jim Bullard says:

    When I was a young lad in the late 50s and early 60s I read a lot of articles in Popular Science and Popular Mechanics about the coming age when technology would do most of the drudge work and workers would have lots of leisure time. The authors neglected to foresee (or at least mention) that the leisure time would be called unemployment.

    Add to that the world economy which we so eagerly bought into and many workers find themselves competing for work against workers in other countries who are willing to do the work for a fraction of the wages that an American worker expects. So why do American workers expect more?

    Those same forecasts of leisure depicted it as a world in which everyone prospered. There were even forecasts of an airplane or hovercraft in every garage, you’d fly to work instead of drive. We were pushed to become consumers of all that the technology and cheap foreign labor could provide with little effort or input by American workers. It was vision of the future designed to fail.

    A populace trained to be unsatisfied with what they could afford on stagnant or shrinking wages borrowed against whatever they had (or didn’t have yet) in order to keep up. Our government did the same running up our collective debt and the Europeans did the same. It wasn’t 6 weeks of holidays that made the problem. The economic system was/is unsustainable. To sell the goods you need buyers with money. People out of work or earning just enough for basics don’t have money.

  6. Lucy Martin says:

    Bob, I agree “safe, satisfying, and challenging working conditions” ought to matter too, along with any question of time off.

    Verplank, I can’t prove the Europe’s social infrastructure (health care, subsidized tuition, longer vacation time) is specifically why Europe is in economic turmoil right now. Frankly, that package does look pretty good and arguable contributes to a higher quality of life.

    But it stands to reason there is at least some connection between the perks and the problems. Take unemployment. Protecting good jobs, flush with benefits, clearly carries a cost of higher unemployment for younger workers trying to get their foot in that door. I believe there is general acknowledgment in Europe that this is a pressing issue.

    If my comment about some “magical” right to paid time off sounds combative, let me explain. Most of my life has been spent in agriculture, restaurants, or as a free-lance/self-employed person. For about 18 months I had a job with paid vacation and paid holidays, but that was it.

    Not that I need pity. My spouse works in a sector where good benefits are the norm. I access a decent life via his economic stability. But the contrast between his work world, and mine, is stark.

    As many readers know, some restaurant workers aren’t even entitled to minimum wage. (Maybe tips will make up the gap, maybe they won’t. You take your chances.) Ag workers are not always entitled to basic like extra pay for working overtime or on holidays. And (as any farmer knows) plants and animals need harvesting or care all the time, be that Christmas day or not.

    Of course, there’s no guarantee life will be fair. The market determines wages and benefits. Get a good education, make smart career choices, etc. or suffer the natural consequences.

    But I am I the only one who finds it odd that talk about basic rights for workers only trickles down so far and no farther? That some humans are more worthy of benefits than others? Benefits often paid for by others, such as taxpayers?

    So, on the one hand, yes! I envy getting paid time off!

    On the other hand, I’ve also seen small businesses struggle for mere survival, with no guarantee of anything. Many are burdened with mandates to provide health insurance etc. to their employees, benefits owners may not enjoy themselves in their struggle to stay afloat.

    How did we get to the point where some classes of workers get (and feel perfectly entitled to) nice perks? If it’s so good for everyone, why isn’t everyone getting that?

    If “we” can’t spread the goodies equitably in our own culture, how’s that going to work when the base competition is the living standard in India, Mexico or China?

    It seems to me the developed world is facing a widening gap between what “would be nice” and what is actually affordable.

    And yes, it often does come down to the highly divisive question of “who pays”?

  7. Pete Klein says:

    Because of the nature of my work, holidays mean next to nothing and the same goes for weekends. As for vacation and sick time, I never use all that I am allowed to use, so neither do they mean much of anything to me – and no, I am not credited nor compensated for time off not taken.
    There is a plus side. If I do need to skip work for a day or two, I never feel I am robbing anyone of anything.
    I do not feel depressed from the lack of the time off I take. I am bored if I am not working or taking a vacation for more than a couple of days.
    What do I actually think of holidays? I think they are an inconvenience for those who work the holidays. How so? Many of the offices you need are closed.

  8. Verplanck says:


    Bad investors caused the euromess. People thought investing in greece was the same thing as investing in germany. It clearly wasn’t. Now greece is left with robbing the middle class to pay off bankers who made bad decisions. Taking away vacation won’t bring greece out of its death spiral.

    The more interesting question is when you ask why some claases of workers get nice perks. Our cob-job of a health care system was never planned out, it fell into place by accident (ezra klein of the wapo had a good article on this). When Europe was re-organizing after WW2, they had the opportunity to rebuild their society. We didn’t, and are now living with the consequences of a jumble of labor laws that were written over the course of 200 some-odd years.

    It’s long past time for us to think about this more holistically. Everyone has a right to sick days (why restaurants don’t have them is a public health nightmare), vacation and health care.

  9. Josh says:

    Germany has just reached a record low (since reunification) unemployment rate of 5.6%.

    They have 20 days paid holiday with 9-13 public holidays, and I don’t think that anybody would claim that Germany has an incredibly flexible job market.

    According to the US and the UK have essentially the same unemployment rate right now (between 8-8.5%). I work in the UK and have 42 days of paid holiday per year. I’m very happy to pay more, receive a lower salary and have these holidays and a social safety net in case I do become unemployed.

  10. Paul says:

    Look at the recent Chinese new year. There they have what amounts to almost 6 weeks off for the holiday. Two to get ready, two to celebrate, and two to recover! Their productivity drops like a rock even affecting the global economic picture but they bounce right back, interesting?

  11. Mervel says:

    In Europe does everyone who works for any private company get a set mandated vacation? I mean how does that work?

    If you look at the EU as a whole, they have always had a higher unemployment rate in general than the US.

    But I have no desire to be Europe, they are in a mess they are not the model.

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