Europeans love to tell Americans how great their workers have it. In addition to an almost guaranteed for life job, the euro worker has sick days, family leave, a 35 hour workweek, 4-6 weeks of annual vacation, and healthy pension.
The only problems with all these benefits is that it makes hiring new workers impossible, and productivity suffers compared to other industrialized countries, especially the US.
Now, Europe’s highest court has ruled that if you get sick while on vacation, you can take more vacation time for the period you were ill.
For most Europeans, almost nothing is more prized than their four to six weeks of guaranteed annual vacation leave. But it was not clear just how sacrosanct that time off was until Thursday, when Europe’s highest court ruled that workers who happened to get sick on vacation were legally entitled to take another vacation.
“The purpose of entitlement to paid annual leave is to enable the worker to rest and enjoy a period of relaxation and leisure,” the Court of Justice of the European Union, based in Luxembourg, ruled in a case involving department store workers in Spain. “The purpose of entitlement to sick leave is different, since it enables a worker to recover from an illness that has caused him to be unfit for work.”
With much of Europe mired in recession, governments struggling to reduce budget deficits and officials trying to combat high unemployment, the ruling is a reminder of just how hard it is to shake up long-established and legally protected labor practices that make it hard to put more people to work and revive sinking economies.
The workers originally won their case in a Spanish court, where they argued that collective bargaining agreements made a distinction between annual leave and sick leave that was recognized by Spanish law. The National Association of Large Distribution Businesses, known as Anged, appealed to the Supreme Court in Madrid, which then asked the Court of Justice for a ruling on how to apply European law covering working times.
The Court of Justice had previously ruled that a person who gets sick before going on vacation is entitled to reschedule the vacation, and on Thursday it said that right extended into the vacation itself.
“The point at which the temporary incapacity arose is irrelevant,” the court found.
The ruling applies across the European Union of 27 countries.
At at time when the 40 hour work week in America is going extinct, and studies show Americans are the most overworked workers in the developed world, such a policy sounds very attractive. American workers are an unhappy bunch — only 45% of us express satisfaction with our jobs. We don’t take vacations — even the ones we’re entitled to. We are stressed out, unhealthy, and sacrifice family time for our jobs.
But is the cure really going on vacation for 6 weeks? It sounds idyllic. Kicking back, sleeping in, maybe indulge yourself by taking up a woodworking project, or putter about in the garden — sounds relaxing.
Meanwhile, you’re worried that the go-getter in your department who’s 20 years younger than you is impressing the hell out of your boss by doing your job as well as his. There may be those who see a 6 week vacation as heaven — hourly workers, unions, many service workers. But the fact is, as Anne-Marie Slaughter points out in her long and thoughtful article in The Atlantic, for ambitious and driven employees (or entrepreneurs), working long hours is expected — and demanded — for executives and would-be managers and partners. Slaughter doesn’t think it has to be this way and she offers several interesting solutions.
But this is a matter of evolution, not revolution. As long as capitalism rewards the ambitious and penalizes the slothful, working long hours will be a part of American life for many.