Throughout August in Europe, shops are shuttered, offices empty, streets go quiet.
The European Union requires that every worker gets at least four weeks of paid vacation a year, and many countries mandate six. An extra guarantee was added to that this week, when Europe's highest court ruled Thursday that if a worker got sick on vacation, that person had the legal right to take another one.
For Americans, this is hard to fathom. Here employers don't have to give their workers any paid vacation or sick days, and big business lobbies have fought bitterly to keep it that way. Many critics of the EU, including presidential contender Mitt Romney, have also tied luxurious benefits, like a month of salaried downtime, to Europe's current financial troubles.
This court case began in Spain, a country currently grappling with an unemployment rate of 24 percent, and one of over 50 percent among the young. Spanish workers are already allowed to reschedule their vacation if they get sick beforehand, and can re-do their vacation if it coincides with a temporary incapacity from work due to pregnancy or breastfeeding.
But a group of unionized department store workers demanded the right to take paid leave at a later date if they suffer any kind of incapacity during their vacation time, such as a sprained ankle or the flu.
They won their case in Spanish court, but a business group appealed the decision up to the Supreme Court in Madrid, and finally to the Court of Justice of the European Union, based in Luxembourg, whose word has sway over the laws of 27 countries.
"The purpose of entitlement to paid annual leave is to enable the worker to rest and enjoy a period of relaxation and leisure," the judges ruled. "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."
Mitt Romney had said that bringing European-style benefits to the U.S. would "poison the very spirit of America," but as Time reported, many economists say that such lengthy vacation actually leaves hardly a mark on the overall economy, and the cost is usually tucked away in employees' salaries.
There have been some efforts to bring mandatory paid vacation time to the U.S. In 2009, Rep. Alan Grayson (D-Fla.) introduced a "Paid Vacation Act," which would, if successful, have required companies with more than 100 employees to offer one week of paid vacation time to all workers who have been there for at least a year.
"We were attacked for that as if we were advocating the end of human civilization," says John de Graaf, the national coordinator of the worker-advocacy group Take Back Your Time, who helped Grayson draft the bill. It found only five, Democratic co-sponsors.
But Europe's workers, many of whom are unemployed, are clinging to their rights, as austerity measures fast erode the generosity of their welfare states. When Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy recently proposed reforms that would cut severance pay, permit companies to unilaterally reduce employees' salaries, and opt out of collective wage agreements, people came out to protest in the thousands.
Paid vacation in the U.S., it seems, is considered a luxury and a privilege. But in Europe, it is so hallowed that not even sickness is allowed to mess it up.
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