Congress’ August Recess Is America’s Only Required Vacation


Congress managed to adjourn on Friday night, sending all members home for a legislatively required recess for the entire month of August after becoming a close contender for the least productive Congress ever, with lots of unfinished business on the table.

The Legislative Reorganization Act of 1970 requires that the House and Senate take a break “not later than July 31 of each year,” or in an odd-numbered year “that Friday in August which occurs at least thirty days before the first Monday in September (Labor Day) of such year to the second day after Labor Day.” Congress can stay if the country is in a state of war, but that hasn’t happened since 1941. The law was passed after Congressional sessions had stretched so long that in 1963, the session began in January and ended in December with just a three-day weekend as a break in the whole time.

Lawmakers can come back early if both houses agree to it. And of course many of them hold town halls and other political or campaign events and meetings while they’re home. But they also get another break in December and often get nearly 250 days off from work in the nation’s capitol each year.

The American worker, on the other hand, could very well get no days off from work in a year. We are the only advanced country in the world that doesn’t guarantee that workers get some paid vacation time. There is no law, as there is for Congress, making sure they can take a break. The European Union, on the other hand, requires 20 paid vacation days, and many countries go further, such as the mandated 30 days in France, 28 in the United Kingdom, and 25 in Austria, Denmark, Finland, Norway, and Sweden. Even our northerly neighbors Canada require 10.

Many American employers offer vacation time anyway, but the number is shrinking, not growing. More than 80 percent of workers got paid vacation days two decades ago, but just 77 percent do today. Those who are getting the benefit get more days than before, 20 compared to 15. But most people don’t even use all of their time off, with the average employee taking only half of it. Many say they feel like they can’t be disconnected from work. And the increase in vacation days is counteracted by a decline in the number of paid holidays, which dropped from ten to eight.

Indeed, the United States doesn’t guarantee paid holidays either, unlike 13 other developed countries. That means, for example, that companies like Walmart, Gap, and Target were completely in their rights when they opened on Thanksgiving Day last year and made workers come in to work.

This isn’t just problematic for workers who may not get paid days off. Taking a break makes them perform better, helping their employers. Ernst & Young found that for every ten hours of vacation time taken by an employee, her year-end performance rating would improve by 8 percent. It also found that there was lower turnover with more time taken, which can be costly. Former NASA scientists found that people who take vacations will have an 82 percent boost in job performance upon their return, and longer vacations lead to better results. A recent study of Dutch workers also found that vacations can increase creativity by increasing cognitive flexibility when they return.

More vacation time would also boost the economy. One report found that American workers leave an average of three unused vacation days on the table every year, but if those were taken to travel, leisure spending would increase by nearly $1 trillion. Even if only some people traveled with that extra time, spending would still go up by $67 billion, adding $160 billion in business sales in the leisure industry.