Hey, American Workers! You’re Getting Screwed!

It’s widely-known at this point, though seldom acknowledged, that Americans are getting thoroughly screwed when it comes to benefits, laws, and protections. It’s bad. But how bad is it, and where do we compare with other countries? Let’s take a look.


Happy Labor Day!

  • There are no mandatory break times listed in United States federal law. Some states have mandatory break times, but there are no federal laws requiring it.
  • This includes no mandatory lunch breaks.
  • There are no mandatory vacation times required under federal law, nor, as far as I know, under any state laws.
  • There are no laws at the federal level requiring sick pay for employees.
  • Federal law does not require paid parental leave.
  • Employers can and do intrude on employees’ time away from work with no repercussions.
  • College remains an expensive necessity.
  • Health care remains an expensive luxury.
  • Inequality between workers and the people who employ them is getting worse and worse.
  • Unions are still being dismantled all over the country.

Other countries have it much better. You’ve probably heard by now that most European countries require paid vacation time, and as mentioned, America doesn’t. Here’s a very illuminating paragraph from Wikipedia.

Most countries around the world have labor laws that mandate employers give a certain number of paid time-off days per year to workers. Nearly all Canadian provinces require at least two weeks; in the European Union the countries can set freely the minimum, but it has to be at least 20 days (not including national holidays). Full-time employment in Australia requires twenty annual leave days a year. US law does not require employers to grant any vacation or holidays, and about 25% of all employees receive no paid vacation time or paid holidays.

Emphasis added. How bad is the situation? Places like the UK, France, and the Nordics, where people get 5 weeks or so of paid vacation time. The hard-working Germans get 4 weeks. Even poor countries, like Chad and Somalia, require that employers provide at least a couple of weeks of vacation time. In fact, take a look at this article, and sort it by total number of paid days off. Then scroll around until you find the only country with zeroes for all three categories.

Welcome to America!

Oh, and please note that those numbers are the minimum required vacation times. Actual employers might provide extra time off, if they wish.

Contrast this with your personal situation. If you have a great job with a company that you’ve been with for ten years, you might get two or three weeks off. Maybe. But you probably won’t.


To be fair, at least the parental leave situation is better. In that case, we’re one of only two countries (along with Lesotho), who don’t require paid parental leave. So at least we have company.

Oh, and then there’s sick time. Don’t you think that if you’re sick, you’re sick, and ought not to have to work? You should be pretty much required to stay home if you’ve got something contagious. Not only will it help you recover faster, but it will decrease the odds of you making other people sick.

Yet there’s no federal requirement for people to have paid time off while sick. Before you get all libertarian and dismissive about this, let me point out that people who are paid minimum wage can’t generally afford to miss time at work, and those are the people who make your food when you eat out. Do you really want to have a sick person preparing your food? At the very least, I think that the government should require paid sick time for anyone who is required to have a food handler’s card.

As for the break situation? Let me share some personal experience. I grew up in Washington state, and spent most of my adult life there, along with a couple of years in California. In both states, employers are required to provide paid ten minute breaks and one unpaid half-hour break for anyone working an eight-hour shift. This is not unreasonable, I think most people will agree.

Then I moved to Arizona. Here there are no requirements for breaks. When I lived in California, I was working for Circle-K. I was able to transfer when I moved to Arizona. Imagine my shock when, on my first day of work, I was told I didn’t get any breaks. I was expected to be on my feet, working hard, for eight hours non-stop.

If you think this is reasonable, a: you’re a jerk, and b: you do it. It’s not reasonable; it’s obnoxious, and Circle-K isn’t the only company that did this. AMC Theaters also doesn’t require break times for employees in this state. I could work a 12 hour shift as a server, and did, and did so with no breaks. If I was lucky, I might get ten minutes to wolf down some food, and that would be that.

To be fair, most of the “better” employers out there do provide breaks, and in fact the one I work for now gives you two fifteen minute breaks and a half-hour lunch. But the fact that the most vulnerable people, who work the lowest-level jobs, don’t get breaks during their shifts is inexcusable.

Let’s talk now about your employer intruding on your time away from work. If you’re white collar, you’re probably quite familiar with your boss expecting you to keep  up on your emails, answer any phone calls from work, and are expected to take your work phone, or maybe even your work computer, with you when you’re on vacation.

In France, this is illegal. But in America, it’s not only legal, it’s expected. So even you white collar folks are getting screwed over, as you are with vacation time. Well, unless you get five weeks paid, like you would if you lived in the UK.

College and health care remain expensive. Steps have been taken by Obama to fix these problems, and he’s had some successes with the ACA and with reforms to the way that student loans are repaid. But it’s only a drop in the bucket.

In many other countries, the cost of higher education is covered by taxes. You can attend for free or for very low tuition. In some countries this is just basically at the community college level, and in other countries it goes much farther.

It probably goes without saying, but I’ll say it anyhow, that in the United States, you’re expected to pay your own way, and take expensive loans if you can’t. Hillary aims to change this, providing free college up through the first four years, so all you #bernieorbust types out there, remember that come November. She might not be able to make it happen, but she’ll try. Trump won’t.

As for health care, oh, you all know by now that we’re getting royally fucked on that. The situation is improving, with a lot more people having insurance thanks to the ACA. Insurance companies can no longer refuse to cover sick people, or kick you off the insurance rolls because you’re sick, as they so often used to.

But it’s still way too expensive for everyone involved. We need to do what many other countries have done, and go to a single-payer system with supplemental insurance coverage for certain things (ie: you want a private room at the hospital? Contacts instead of glasses? Invisilign instead of normal braces? Pay for supplemental insurance). We also need to then allow the federal government to negotiate over the price of medicine. The recent kerfuffle over the Epipens proves that.

As with college, yes, this would be paid with taxes, which means your taxes would likely go up by a small amount. On the other hand, you’d get health care coverage from cradle to grave, you’d never pay an end-user fee, your cost for medicines would go down (a big plus to the over 60 crowd, surely), and you’d know that you, your kids, and your grandkids could attend college without taking out the sort of loans normally associated with buying a first home.

My last two points are about income inequality and unions. Income inequality is massive and insane in this country. It used to not be the case. Back during the post-war period, and up until the inflation of the 1970s, it wasn’t too bad. But it started to get slowly worse, and has gotten downright terrible in the last few years.

Now you may not believe that this is a big deal. Who cares, right, how much the CEO earns, as long as the person who takes out his trash isn’t screwed over? Well, that person is screwed over, because he or she is probably having a tough time paying their basic living expenses and can be fired at any moment for almost any reason, or for no reason, while said CEO gets a massive golden parachute, even if he or she completely fails at their job.

Also, when that CEO earns 5,000 times what the janitor earns, how can you expect them to have any kind of understanding or perspective on what their workers are going through? They might make choices that really benefit the bottom line of the company, but destroy the workers lives in the process. On the other hand, if they were more connected to, and closer income to, the workers, then they might make a different choice. Perhaps that choice would help the bottom line, though maybe not as much, but also leave the workers’ lives intact.

There’s a remedy to all of this, of course: unions. The government and employers don’t just pass laws and grant benefits out of the goodness of their hearts or because it’s the right thing to do. No, they do it because they’re forced to. They’re forced to by voters, and they’re forced to by unions.

But union membership is on the decline across the country, and has been for some time now (again, as with many terrible things about our country, we can blame Reagan). During this time, we’ve had stagnant wages and a shrinking middle class. This is not a coincidence. Nor is it a coincidence that many of the countries where workers get great benefits also tend to have strong unions.

If you’re a Trump supporter…well, you probably stopped reading long ago, so let’s try that again. If you’re someone who longs for the halcyon days of yore, when someone who dropped out of high school could get a job, stay with that company for forty years, and then retire with a good pension, then you need to understand a couple of things. First off, that’s not terribly realistic. Sorry.

But second, the only way to get anything close to that is with strong unions. We had those in the years following World War II, and look at what a great deal many workers had back then. Strong unions provide protections for workers at all levels, and that helps build a stronger middle class,  which in turn helps make a stronger country.

So happy Labor Day, and as you grill up some food, or drink some beer, or whatever, take some time to reflect on how fucked-over you are, and how nice it would be to change that.


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