Everyday Reality of Employees in US vs EU

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For years many (not all, but most) of our fellow Europeans have been putting the United States as an epitome of perfect capitalism. Countries and organizations have often suggested ideas and changes based on the American economic/healthcare or educational system. And even though there are elements which we can learn from and desire to implement, some other parts of that system might seem much less attractive and desirable.

Let’s take a quick look at some of the differences within the labor market with the focus on individual employment; in other words, let us examine what an average life of an individual working looks like in the US versus their counterparts in the European Union.

First, working hours. Most European nations work 5 days a week and 8 hours a day, which accumulates to 40 hours a week (with some exceptions, including a 35-hour work week). Of course, our European friends can enjoy lunch/dinner break, which in almost all countries is paid by the employer.

Well, guess what? If you work in the United States you still have to work 8 hours a day but in the spirit of capitalistic laisse faire – the employer will NOT pay for your lunch/dinner break. Does it mean you have to go hungry? No, It merely means you have to work – then if it’s time for your lunch/dinner break (which is required by law even though you will not be paid for that time) you must stop the clock – you can eat either for 30 minutes or 1 hour and then get back to work and start the clock again.

In other words, instead of working 8 hours a day you must work 8.5 hours (if you take a 30-minute break) or 9 hours (if you take a 1-hour break), but you will only be paid for 8 hours, since your break is unpaid. This means that you might work 45 hours a week but you will only be paid for 40 hours.

So next time it’s time to go home and you are happy to be getting out at work – think that if you lived across the ocean, you would have to stay an extra hour…

What about vacations? Oh, yes, Europeans love to travel and we enjoy having a few weeks off in a year to visit our favorite places or family out of town.

I often hear from my friends in Europe that they spent 2 weeks here, and a few months later for a week or two somewhere else. Well, another sobering truth; in the United States, 99% of jobs allow you 1 week after 1 year of work, you are accruing this time off every month you work for the company. The second year you work for the company you accrue a little bit more every month, so the second year you might get to approximately 2 weeks, and after one day you accrue 4 weeks – it stops.

And if you do not use it? Oh, well, you will not accrue any more. But you might think – I don’t have to worry about it because I have worked most of my life so I would already get 4 weeks from the start right? Wrong.

You see, in the United States, when you start a new job you do not carry your vacations saved from your previous jobs. When you start working for a new company, you start from zero, and then after a year you can hopefully enjoy 1 week of vacation.

Or you might have no vacations at all if you change jobs every year and thus you did not stay with one company long enough to accrue any days off (for the first 90 days – what is called a ‘probationary period’ – you do not accrue anything).

And what if we get sick? Well, in many European countries we are blessed with 2 options: a) you can either go to a private physician or a clinic if you have the money and wish to spend it, or; b) you can stand in a long line to a free government health facility.

Americans do not believe in government-funded health care so their only option are private clinics, usually quite expensive ones. But if you work, you should have health benefits, correct? Unfortunately, that is also not true.

Employers in the US are not required to provide you with a health insurance, although many companies do offer it to their employees. There are many smaller companies or business which do not, in which case you better be saving all your money for a rainy day, when you get sick, because private doctor’s appointments or hospital stays are not cheap.

And finally, we can conclude our little comparative study with the most pleasant aspect after a life work: retirement.

As mentioned above, in most of the EU countries, you do not have to worry about retiring as long as you worked hard your whole life. In the United States, saving for your retirement is your responsibility. If you are lucky and your employer offers a 401k plan (multiple stock portfolio managed by a bank or private financial company), then you should put some money into it every month, hoping that those stocks will grow (some companies also deposit some small sums, app. 5%-15%).

However, similarly as the health insurance, employers DO NOT have to provide retirement benefits. What if your employer does not provide a 401k? In such a case, you can either start saving your own money in a bank account or purchase a private retirement plan from a financial company, which works similarly to insurance – from each paycheck you put aside a required amount, and when it’s time, you can withdraw your benefits.

Summarizing, we often tend to glamorize other countries based on movies and books. But the reality might be often quite different tto what we’ve imagined.

So next time you wake up in the morning and drag your feet to work, think how much well off are we, Europeans, as compared to our friends on the other side of the Atlantic.

Wojtek Baszczyk